The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

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“Tar” is a poem divided into three stanzas, set around the poet’s own experience of the Three Mile Island nuclear-reactor accident. In March, 1979, this accident threw many people around the nation (and especially people in Pennsylvania, where the poet lived and where the reactor is located) into a state of alarm over the danger of a full-scale nuclear meltdown that would have unleashed a cloud of deadly radioactive gases over a wide area.

As the poem begins, the juxtaposition of the nuclear accident, mentioned in the first line, with the workmen who are mentioned in the second line seems incongruous, and, in fact, it seems to be this incongruity that has attracted C. K. Williams’s attention. He talks about wandering out to watch the men at work to distract himself from the news that he spent most of the night watching.

As the poem progresses in the second stanza, as the official denials of danger from the nuclear-reactor accident seem to him more confused and less trustworthy, and as he sees that the work the men do on his roof is “harrowingly dangerous,” watching the roofers and their work becomes not so much a way of avoiding thinking about the nuclear accident as a way of confronting it. That is, the dangerous work of reshingling his roof becomes a metaphor for the precariousness of living in the nuclear age.

By the third stanza, the events of this day have convinced him of the inevitability of a disastrous nuclear mishap. “We’d understood,” he says, “we were going to perish of all thisif not soon, then someday.” As the narrator—who is clearly Williams himself—reflects on the whole incident, he tries to understand why these roofers stay so clear in his mind, while the rest of the events have become such a haze to him. Not only did the glitter of the metal they were working with stay in his mind, but the carats of tar that formed in the gutter, “so black they seemed to suck the light out of the air,” became for him an appropriately threatening image of the fear he felt that day, and the graffiti—“obscenities and hearts”—that the children in the neighborhood write with these pieces of tar stays in his mind as an expression of the chaos of this experience.

As becomes clear in the first stanza, when Williams discusses watching the news for long hours, the terror of an accident like this happening nearby is amorphous and hard to grip mentally. By the end of the poem, however, he realizes that his memory has found a form for this terror by selecting images of the whole experience, especially the images of the workmen.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

C. K. Williams is known for a narrative style of poetry that has an organic and almost casual sound to it. A poem such as “Tar” (and most of the poems in the collection of the same name) does not force language into self-consciously “poetic” forms. Instead, it tries to shape a poem out of the rhythms of natural-sounding speech.

The careful reader, however, will not let the casual sound of the language lull him or her into overlooking the careful shaping of the poem. Although true to Williams’s style of poetry, the central metaphor, in which he thinks of the Three Mile Island accident in terms of the work that was done on his roof that day, is not presented self-consciously as a metaphor, but rather as a coincidence; this metaphor constitutes the heart of the poem. When the narrator says he never realized how “matter-of-factly and harrowingly dangerous” it is, he is referring literally to the work of tarring and shingling a roof, but there is also a clear figurative level being worked out on which he is referring not only to how dangerous nuclear plants are, specifically, but also to how dangerous life in the nuclear age is.

The things that make the work on the roof particularly dangerous are the decaying materials, the rusty nails that have to be pulled out, the under-roofing that crumbles under the weight of a workman, and the old furnace that is kept burning to heat the tar. The extent to which he sees the crumbling of these fairly simple tools and materials as stand-ins for the nuclear power plant becomes clear when a “dense, malignant smoke shoots up” from the furnace, reminding him of the danger of radioactive gases being released from the nuclear core of the Three Mile Island plant. The furnace is adjusted rather crudely by a workman hitting it with a hammer.

When the poet looks inside the heated tar pot, he sees a “Dantean broth” and compares the tar to the images of hell presented in Inferno (c. 1320). The bubbling tar looks bland, almost like licorice, in the crucible in which it is cooked, but when spilled, it “sears, and everything is permeated.” Again, the comparison to the “crucible” within the power plant is clear; the water that is used both to cool the nuclear core and to convey the tremendous amount of heat it takes to operate the turbines in the plant is innocuous so long as it is kept contained. If this water were to be spilled as radioactive steam, however, it, like spilled tar, would permeate and contaminate everything around it.

The middle stanza ends when the men go to lunch, leaving the air above the roof “alive with shimmers and mirages.” Literally, Williams is referring to the shimmer of heat rising from the hot tar on the roof, but this image also completes the comparison the stanza has been developing by implicitly referring to the cooling tower of the Three Mile Island plant, which, in news reports of the accident, was prominently displayed giving off heat and radioactivity.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1831

The question that C. K. Williams makes most personal in “One of the Muses,” the last poem in Tar, is this: How does one keep going, as a human being let alone a poet, as one’s body, plans, loves, and familiar surroundings decay? The answer for the poet, as it seems to be for the characters in his poems, is that life itself is a kind of insistence or process that is stronger than memory and interpretation—a process that often expresses itself through desire and sometimes through acceptance.

To shape this idea, Williams focuses in these poems on men and women who are losers, on environments which are harsh and rotting, and on himself (or someone like him) as an observer, a loner, a neophyte at sex, and, finally, as a poet trying to figure out what that means and what poetry means.

The observer (sometimes the narrator and sometimes not) and the characters whom he observes are brought together in some of the poems to point out the freakish and despairing aspects of the latter and the fascination and intense confusion of the former. In “From My Window,” the narrator watches a crippled Vietnam veteran, ugly and drunk, and his derelict friend who is trying to help him in the street. The narrator cannot take his eyes off them, and he also watches the veteran’s friend making “a figure eight” over and over in the snow in a vacant lot and knows that he himself is being watched. Unlike the real-estate workers who also watch the derelicts, he is not simply and blandly curious but seems impressed by the way the derelicts stick together and by the confusing but riveting figure of infinity or endurance that one of them uselessly designs in the snow which covers it up. The observer is much more removed in “Floor,” for here he is looking at an old, pornographic tintype in which an “obese” woman and an awkwardly positioned man in a “bathing costume” are making love. The poet-onlooker stresses how blasé and accepting the woman is by way of introducing the reader again to an endurance that partakes of a critical measure of despair. The subjects of the tintype are dead but the tintype remains. The poem expands this insight by saying “in the sweatshops girls will turn to stone over their Singers”—these oppressed workers, like the woman in the picture earning her living, provide an image of the human (in this case, the female) outlasting its own decay by lacking emotion, by being in despair. In fact, what makes people last in the onlooker’s memory is usually their disfigurement, as much a spiritual inference as it is a physical fact. In “Neglect,” the woman behind the lunch counter in a godforsaken bus station betrays not only the “indifference” of the woman in “Floor” but also the ugliness of a dead fashion in her beehive hairdo and the despair of someone who chain-smokes waiting for something to happen that never will. Similarly, the adolescent boy in the poem is “frail, sidelong somehow, afflicted with a devastating Nessus-shirt of acne.”

Many times, the onlooker does not understand why these people do what they do or what keeps them going; they almost drive him crazy. In “The Color of Time,” the woman “with a lifeless nightgown” under her housedress, who repeats twice, “you’re drunk,” inside the peeling window across the airshaft, and who takes out the garbage without seeming to see anyone around her, makes the boy who hears her in the night have a bad dream about babies crying and gives him an obscure fear of sex. The narrator in “Flight” knows what a wreck the apartment building called the Greystone has come to be, for it is in a neighborhood with which he is familiar, and he has been to hideous parties crowded with drug addicts and other sleazy sorts on the top floor of this apartment building; it galls him that the “old ladies” who have lived there for a long time insist on hanging onto, enduring in, their “genteel cubicles.” The German refugee Moira and her old mother, who has grotesquely callused and ingrown feet, give the narrator in “Combat” a grueling time. He is twenty-one years old, inexperienced, and bound up with these women in a symbiotic relationship so frustrating, confusing, and exhausting that he finally understands what is going on. Moira (who gives him everything as his lover except the final satisfaction) and her mother (who finds him repugnant, he suspects, because he is a Jew and somehow gets between him and Moira) are using him to salve their conscience as Germans. Like the women’s nostalgia for destruction, which the narrator sees in Moira’s repeated story of her German general father’s suicide, her firsthand experience of the dead, and her and her mother’s flight in wartime, the secret of their endurance is to abase themselves before a reminder of the victims whom they can never love, consumed with their own self-love, self-pity.

This seems to be the worst that any of the narrators in Tar has to endure. As in this instance, further, there is always an insight to be gained, deflating as it may be. For example, in “Still Life,” the narrator, recalling a day he spent as a twelve-year-old boy in the company of a slightly older girl, associates the “sullen surge” of a rain-swollen brook with the sense of expectation that “made simply touching her/ almost a consummation.” Here, Williams sees that projection is one of the basic things that makes us human—the personification by which we experience an event and the memory by which we return to an event and understand the pathetic fallacy that made it memorable for us. The insight which the narrator passes on to the reader in “The Regulars” is that failure itself can generate the will to live, the need to be taken seriously. The two old men who frequent the Colonial Luncheonette not only insist on relating their schemes for overcoming illness and bad odds but also endlessly predict failure for the new toy store going up across the street; it becomes clear that their pessimism is what keeps them going and that being busybodies about any new venture that comes to their attention is what gives their lives value. The narrator in this poem is a listener, whereas in “The Gas Station” he is a participant; the situation and the result, however, are similar: a humorously repulsive set of circumstances followed by an understanding of how humans grope and hang on, how coming to know itself is crucial to their sense of survival. The boys in “The Gas Station” are sick and depressed the morning after a spree which featured sexual initiation with a prostitute “like a machine,” but the narrator realizes from the experience that one must have someone else (the old men in “The Regulars” use each other for sounding boards) if one is to enact one’s life at all. Furthermore, the narrator believes that such an enactment contains value: “Maybe the right words were there all along. Complicity. Wonder./ . . . Grace. Love. Take care of us. Please.” Repeatedly in Tar, it is the negative which leads to the positive, and often the first step in this process is the collapse of an attractive veneer from an ugly truth, as in “Soon,” where the boy’s “Uncle Sam” Halloween costume turns out to be ill-made and grotesque the moment he puts it on.

The setting in “Soon,” like the settings of many of the other poems in Tar, provides the excuse and background for the narrator’s emphasis on the once-alluring turned to rot which stubbornness, memory, and life itself seem to feed on. The fieldhouse by the “old grammar school playground” in “Soon” is a “shambles”; the once-elegant apartment building in “Flight” is “eaten by neglect”; the once-bustling Pennsylvania coal town in “Neglect” has gone to seed and is colored by “uncertain clouds, unemphatic light”; even the tar which is used to fix the worn-out roof in “Tar,” an image for absurd hope as the neighborhood children write “obscenities and hearts” on the sidewalk with it, is also seen as an agent which sticks to and disfigures whatever it comes in contact with, much like the radiation escaping from Three Mile Island throughout the poem.

Whether on the periphery or at the center of all of these settings and the events which they help to define, the narrator is really the poet himself, and every now and again he identifies himself as such by at least alluding to the connection between the poet’s words and what causes them. “My Mother’s Lips” suggests that making poetry is as basic, frustrating, and triumphant as learning how to talk. In “The Gas Station,” the poet first wonders what the point is of talking about an awkward and guilt-ridden past, then he decides that such talk (poetry) is good when it is committed to crucial actions or experiences before intellectual analysis has gotten to them.

As Williams metaphorically suggests in the title poem, poetry’s “materials are bulky and recalcitrant,” but this does not stop him in “One of the Muses” from trying to pin them down insofar as he (the poet) must deal with them. This poem is really the story of the poet’s affair with his “Muse,” and he uses this as a structural metaphor for his past and present condition as a writer. His objective is to find out “what good . . . could come . . . of recapitulating my afflictions” in poetry. Memory seems to be his Muse, and she provides (or once provided) an ecstasy akin to that of sexual climax, the aftermath of which is (or has been) “crippled” sentences and “petrified” imagery, leading to the poet losing his mind in “hallucination and delusion,” and finally to the loss or absence of the Muse herself (“she simply wasn’t there”). In the end, the poet, learning to do without the exterior cues of such a Muse, survives the trauma of looking inward. He finds his “need” for writing about his “small histories” is, if undefined, somehow healthy. The “she” or Muse he has fused with is himself, and he sees that the poem is not the result of a cause from which it is cut off but the process the poet goes through in making the poem.

Thus, the poems in Tar and their author are meant to be seen as one, much the same as Walt Whitman and his poems were meant to be. The long lines of all the poems in Tar, in fact, have a Whitmanesque urgency and flavor, and if this is not enough to drive home C. K. Williams’ point that he is to be taken as a kind of dark, latter-day Whitman, the last poem in the book “One of the Muses,” makes his intention inescapably clear.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CVIII, October 1, 1983, p. 1880.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 22, 1984, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, November 27, 1983, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, July 22, 1983, p. 126.