The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 517 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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...

(The entire section is 1831 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.