Flesh and Blood

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

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.)

The Poems

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One hundred thirty poems make up Flesh and Blood, C. K. Williams’s fifth book of poetry and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. There are three parts to the book; it would not be far from the mark to say that the first ninety-six poems represent chaos, the next thirty-three order, and the final long poem harmony. The long first part contains individually titled stanzas, and except for a few pairs (back-to-back “Alzheimer,” “Snow,” and “Drought” poems), little at first suggests an arranged sequence. Instead, the themes are disparate and the poems stand alone.

The thirty-three poems of part 2 are also titled stanzas, but thematic keys are given as well. The first half of each title gives one of five themes: “Reading,” “Suicide,” “Love,” “Good Mother,” and “Vehicle.” The second part of the title, following a colon, renders the poem more specific, as in “Reading: The Gym” or “Suicide: Anne.” Of the five thematic groupings, there are six poems in the first, three in the second, ten in the third, and seven each in the fourth and fifth. With these themes in mind, the reader can identify poems in part 1 that correspond to themes in part 2. “Girl Meets Boy” and “Experience” are “Love” poems, while “Easter” extends the Good Mother theme to include a father. The “Vehicle” poems are speculative, and many poems in part 1 are also of this type. In “Herakles” and “Cowboys,” for example, Williams speculates on the...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Just before Williams’s first book (Lies, 1969) came out, Anne Sexton was asked to write something for the cover. Her words on the inside front flap describe the writer as “a demon” and a “master of metaphor.” One of Williams’s masterful metaphors is in “Suicide: Anne,” in which he uses the phrase “a badly started nail” to stand for Sexton’s emotionally aberrant life. This ingenious metaphor contains two braided truths as well as an impersonal exactness. An unstraight nail is incorrigible, an obdurate life unyielding. In “Regret,” the metaphor “in its cold coils” works at a similar level.

A metaphor sometimes waits awhile before it is completed in Flesh and Blood. The first poem, “Elms,” for example, becomes a metaphor for the last. The trees of the avenue are chain-sawed down until “naked facing buildings stare.” One at a time “the winds of time” destroy all living things. Zweig’s death, like the loss of the elms, exposes Williams to his unprotected thoughts. In stanza 15 of “La Petit Salvié,” he writes about “Clearing clumps of shrubs” from Zweig’s small, crumbling estate in the Dordogne at a time when Zweig is weak with fever. He tells of “sawing down a storm-split plum” and of “malevolently armoured maguey:/ their roots are as frail as flesh,” “The winds of time” become in stanza 2 “a perfect breeze” that washes across Zweig’s bed.

In “Sixteen: Tuscany” Williams likens young men drawn to his teenage daughter to bees. There are, among others, “two vacationing Sicilian bees.” The last line, “The air is filled with promises of pollen,” translates as possible...

(The entire section is 687 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Library Journal. CXII, May 1, 1987, p. 72.

The Nation. CCXLIV, May 30, 1987, p. 734.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, August 23, 1987, p. 20.