Flesh and Blood
C. K. Williams is one of the foremost practitioners of a brand of poetry that is in many ways indistinguishable from prose. This status does not make him an outcast—far from it. Instead, he is working in a paradoxical mainstream of American poetry, a stream that goes back to Walt Whitman and flows through the work of such representative twentieth century figures as William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and John Ashbery. These figures, and others, have helped to define—by practice more than precept—a literary form that still wears the label poetry but bears few of the traditional characteristics of that genre. By stripping his work not only of patterned sound and rhythm but also of concrete imagery and typographical play, C. K. Williams dares one to discover just what the essence of poetic expression may be.
Each poem in Flesh and Blood is eight lines long, apparently a severe discipline, but the lines themselves average twenty-two syllables—far longer than the lines in any established form of versification. In fact, on the page, these poems require sixteen lines of type, because each line is so long that it needs to have its last few words tucked underneath the margin-busting opening thrust. The typical specimen, then, is perhaps 176 syllables long, against the 140 of a standard sonnet.
As readers turn the pages of this collection, they confront four heavy and equal blocks of type on each pair of facing pages. This vehicle—or grid—is an equivalent, in a prose mode, to the long stanza of verse. Williams’ long lines, and longer sentences, fight off any further resemblances to traditional poetry—or do they?
One consequence of the Romantic revolution in English poetry was to usher in an age of the lyric: a (usually) short poem of emotional intensity that slowly usurped the whole space of poetry at the expense of narrative and meditative types. The novel emerged as the dominant narrative genre, and meditators were left the prose essay. The emotive qualities of lyric poetry were, for a long time, connected to its ancient association with song and music, but just as characteristic is the lyric’s special way of focusing experience: its ability to crystallize and personalize moments of feeling, perception, thought, or memory. An intensity of concentration in response to what the world has to offer became the lyric’s special domain, the response more essentially the subject than the stimulus for the response. In recent criticism, this area of response has come to be called “affect,” defined as the conscious, subjective dimension of emotional feeling separate from any physiological change. The focus on affect, in the utterance of the speaker as transferred to the experience of the reader, became the hallmark of the lyric, even as the mnemonic, structural, and decorative aspects of poetic art fell away. As affective writing, then, Williams’ work remains lyrical, even as he pushes out toward the flexuous manner of prose, even as he wanders into discursive uses of language and into long patches of abstract diction.
Rhetoric and syntax, as Jonathan Holden has observed (in The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric, 1980), have become the communicative heart of much contemporary poetry, and it is in these terms that the poetic art of C. K. Williams is best understood and appreciated. The devices of persuasion and sentence construction, along with the framing or focusing activity of each poem, need the kind of careful analysis one is accustomed to giving to meter, line break, imagery, sound patterns, and figures of speech.
At one extreme of Williams’ practice is a poem such as “Dignity,” a poem that syntactically rolls on, accumulating clauses and phrases until it comes to rest at its only and final period. There are a number of poems like this one, poems that build by refinement and qualification of an observation or an idea, capturing in their hesitations and modifications the very process of a subtle mental and emotional instrument struggling to register its experience. A mobile intelligence that looks closely at everything and at its own responses finds everything hard to pin down, and yet the act of trying to pin things down—the process—is what is most sharable. Williams is most...
(The entire section is 1748 words.)