C. K. Williams

b. 1936
C. K. Williams

Hailed by poet Paul Muldoon in the Times Literary Supplement as “one of the most distinguished poets of his generation,” C.K. Williams has created a highly respected body of work, including several collections of original poems, volumes of translations, a book of criticism and a memoir. Williams is especially known as an original stylist; his characteristic line is extraordinarily long, almost prose-like, and emphasizes characterization and dramatic development. His early work focused on overtly political issues such as the Vietnam War and social injustice. In his later work, Williams has shifted from a documentary style toward a more introspective approach, writing descriptive poems that reveal the states of alienation, deception, and occasional enlightenment that exist between public and private lives in modern urban America.

Williams was born in Newark, New Jersey and educated at Bucknell College and the University of Pennsylvania. Though he was encouraged by his father to read and memorize poems, Williams didn’t begin to write poetry until his late teens. He soon found success, however, and Williams’s early poetry was often promoted by other poets. His first book, Lies (1969), was published upon the recommendation of Anne Sexton who, according to Allan M. Jalon in the Los Angeles Times, called Williams “the Fellini of the written word.” The book was widely acclaimed: M.L. Rosenthal in Poetry described it as a collection of poems that portrays “psychic paralysis despite the need to make contact with someone.” The book’s final poem, “A Day for Anne Frank,” which had been published separately a year earlier, was praised by Alan Williamson in Shenandoah as “a surprisingly moving poem, one of the best in the book.”

Williams’s next three books were also critical successes. I Am the Bitter Name (1972; reprinted 1992) is largely a collection of protest poems about the fear and hatred nurtured by America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It is Williams’s next book, With Ignorance (1977; reprinted 1997), however, that first shows the development of the poet’s trademark style; as James Atlas explained in the Nation, “the lines are so long that the book had to be published in a wide-page format, like an art catalogue,” giving the poetry “an eerie incantatory power.” Tar (1983) employs the same expansive line which allows for philosophical investigation and qualification. The title poem circles the nuclear reactor disaster at Three Mile Island in characteristically Williams fashion, finding dangerous equivalences in as mundane an endeavour as roofing.

 In Flesh and Blood (1987) Williams changes format, but not subject matter. The book is a collection of eight-line poems, each line of twenty or twenty-five syllables and printed two poems to a page. Michael Hofmann, in the Times Literary Supplement, pointed out the poems’ subjects are “the by-now familiar gallery of hobos and winos, children and old people, lovers and invalids; the settings, typically, public places, on holidays, in parks, on pavements and metro-stations.” Edward Hirsch, writing in the New York Times Book Review, described Williams’s poetry as having a “notational, ethnographic quality” that presents “single extended moments intently observed.” Even though these poems sometimes read “like miniature short stories, sudden fictions,” Hirsch continued, they always present people in situations where they are “vulnerable, exposed, on the edge.” The book won Williams the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987.

Williams’s first volume of selected poems, Poems 1963-1983 (1988), collects selections from Lies and I Am the Bitter Name, and reproduces both With Ignorance and Tar in their entirety. Muldoon called it “the book of poems I most enjoyed this year,” finding Williams to have “an enviable range of tone” and to be “by turns tender and troubling.” Hofmann claimed that the book “has as much scope and truthfulness as any American poet since Lowell and Berryman.” Williams himself, in a Los Angeles Times interview with Allan Jalon, stated that he believes “the drama of American poetry is based very much on experience. It’s coming out of all the different cultures. We’re an enormous nation and we have an enormous poetry.” The Vigil (1997) and Repair (1999) both feature the long, prose-like lines that have become Williams’s signature. Richard Howard, reviewing The Vigil for the Boston Review found that “The lines [in The Vigil] have to array some of the most garish and clunky language assayed in recent poetry,” but he appreciated their suitability for narration and description. “So vivid are Williams’s successes with immediacy of sensation and of narration, so overwhelming his virtuosity...in revving up his chosen, his imposed machine,” Howard concluded, “that I am most of the time transfixed by his gift.”

Williams’s later work, particularly in Repair, has developed an increasingly intimate tone. Repair, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, is often personal and introspective. The poems consider such subjects as the birth of the poet’s grandson, the death of a friend’s child, love, and the flowered house dresses worn by his mother and the women of her generation. Yet Williams also includes reminders of his earlier, more socially-aware and outraged, material, including the title poem, which points a righteous finger at a tyrant whose “henchmen had disposed of enemies ... by hammering nails into their skulls.” Critic Brian Phillips, in the New Republic, acknowledged Willliams’s skills at observation and description, concluding that “[Williams’s] work reflects the moral self-questioning of Herbert, the plain-spokenness and the yearning toward nature of Wordsworth, the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart of the later Yeats.”

In addition to his acclaimed memoir, Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself (2000), Williams has also written a work of critical prose, Poetry and Consciousness (1998), which included Williams’s meditations on psychology, the relation of poetry to history and the novel, as well as reflections on his own creative process. He recently published a book of essays, In Time: Poets, Poems, and the Rest (2012). Williams is also a noted translator. His translation of The Bacchae of Euripides (1990) received wide-spread praise for its plain, vigorous language and attention to the possibilities of the stage. He has also translated the poetry of Adam Zagajewski and Francis Ponge.

C.K. Williams has been awarded many honors over his long career, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, a Pushcart Prize, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Award. He teaches at Princeton University and lives part of each year in Paris. Averill Curdy, commenting on The Singing in a Poetry magazine round table discussion, noted that Williams “is one of the poets of his generation who is still singing, who hasn’t retreated into a pokey nostalgia or silence. His poems remain vital to me in their attempt to address the contemporary world, and I find the attempt itself moving.”

 

[Updated 2010]

Career

Poet. Columbia University, New York, NY, professor of writing, 1981-85; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, professor of literature, 1982-95; Visiting professor of literature, Beaver College, Jenkintown, PA, 1975; Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA, 1976, University of California at Irvine, 1978, Boston University, 1979-80; Brooklyn College, 1982- 83; Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA, Mellon visiting professor of literature, 1977; Halloway lecturer at University California—Berkeley, 1986; lecturer at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 1996—.

Bibliography

POEMS

  • A Day for Anne Frank, Falcon Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1968.
  • Lies, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1969.
  • I Am the Bitter Name, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1972.
  • With Ignorance, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1977.
  • The Lark, the Thrush, the Starling, Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1983.
  • Tar, Random House (New York, NY), 1983.
  • Flesh and Blood, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1987.
  • Poems 1963-1983, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1988.
  • Helen, Orchises Press (Washington, DC), 1991.
  • A Dream of Mind, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.
  • New & Selected Poems, Bloodaxe, 1995.
  • The Vigil, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1996.
  • Repair, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
  • Love about Love, Ausable Press (Keene, NY), 2001.
  • The Singing, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2003.
  • Collected Poems, 1963-2006, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2006.
  • Wait, Farrar, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2010.
  • Writers Writing Dying, Farrar, Straus, 2012.

TRANSLATOR

  • (With Gregory Dickerson) Sophocles, Women of Trachis, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1978.
  • Euripides, Bacchae, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1990.
  • (With Renata Gorczynski and Benjamin Ivry) Adam Zagajewski, Canvas, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.
  • (With John Montague and Margaret Grissom) Selected Poems of Francis Ponge, Wake Forest University Press (Winston-Salem, NC), 1994.

EDITOR

  • (And author of introduction) Paul Zweig, Selected and Last Poems, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1989.
  • (And author of introduction) Gerard Manly Hopkins, The Essential Hopkins, Ecco (Hopewell, NJ), 1993.

Also contributing editor of American Poetry Review, 1972—.

OTHER

  • Poetry and Consciousness (criticism), University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1998.
  • Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself (memoir), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
  • On Whitman, Princeton University Press, 2010.
  • In Time: Poems, Poets, and the Rest, 2012.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Clark, LaVerne Harrell, editor, Focus 101, Heidelberg Graphics (Chico, CA), 1979.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 33, 1985, Volume 56, 1989.
  • Contemporary Poets, fifth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
  • Hamilton, Ian, editor. Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1994.
  • Williams, C.K., Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.

PERIODICALS

  • America, October 30, 1993, Andrew J. Krivak, "Dante's Inferno: Translations by Twenty Contemporary Poets," p. 17.
  • American Poetry Review, May-June, 1994, Alan Williamson, "Poems including Politics," p. 17.
  • Booklist, June 15, 1992, Frances Woods, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 1803; October 1, 1994, Elizabeth Gunderson, review of Selected Poems, p. 232; December 1, 1996, Ray Olson, review of The Vigil, p. 640; January 1, 2004, review of The Singing, p. 774.
  • Boston Globe, September 12, 1999, Cathleen Calbert, review of Repair, p. C1.
  • Critical Survey, May, 1997, Maurice Rutherford, review of The Vigil, p. 164.
  • Economist, September 6, 1997, review of Vigil, p. S19; March 18, 2000, "Whose Voice Is It Anyway?," p. 14.
  • Georgia Review, winter, 1983, p. 894; fall, 1993, Judith Kitchen, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 578.
  • Hudson Review, winter, 1988, Robert McDowell, review of Flesh and Blood, pp. 680-681; summer, 1995, Thomas M. Disch, review of Selected Poems, p. 339.
  • Library Journal, October 1, 1983, review of Tar, p. 1880; May 1, 1987, Thom Tammaro, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 72; June 1, 1990, p. 130; May 1, 1992, Louis McKee, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 86; June 1, 1999, Rochelle Ratner, review of Repair, p. 120; March 1, 2000, David Kirby, review of Misgivings, p. 92; January 1, 2001, Fred Muratori, review of Love about Love, p. 112.
  • Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1993, Allan M. Jalon, "The Poet as Witness," p. 30.
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 22, 1984, Clayton Eshleman, review of Tar, p. 3.
  • Nation, June 18, 1977, James Atlas, review of With Ignorance, pp. 763-766; May 30, 1987, Dan Bogen, review of Flesh and Blood, pp. 734-736.
  • New Republic, August 17, 1992, Edward Hirsch, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 46; January 25, 1993, Robert Pinsky, review of Canvas, p. 43; September 18, 2000, Brian Phillips, review of Repair and Misgivings, p. 42.
  • New Statesman & Society, December 23, 1988, Robert Sheppard, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 36; December 4, 1992, David Herd, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 40.
  • New Yorker, January 11, 1993, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 111.
  • New York Times, October 4, 2000, Alan Riding, "An American Bard in Paris Stokes the Poetic Home Fires," p. E1.
  • New York Times Book Review, November 27, 1983, Louis Simpson, review of Tar, p. 13; August 23, 1987, Edward Hirsch, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 20; March 13, 1988, p. 34; November 15, 1992, William Logan, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 15; October 8, 2000, Laura Ciolkowski, review of Misgivings, p. 23.
  • Parnassus, August, 1990, Sherod Santos, reviews of Poems: 1963-1983 and Flesh and Blood, p. 115; fall, 1993, Bill Marx, review of Canvas, p. 100.
  • Partisan Review, summer, 1991, Michael Collier, review of Poems: 1963-1983, p. 565.
  • Poetry, November, 1971, M.L. Rosenthal, review of Lies, pp. 99-104; February, 1973, Jascha Kessler, review of I Am the Bitter Name, pp. 292-303; September, 1984, Bruce Bawer, review of Tar, pp. 353-355; February, 1988, Linda Gregerson, review of Flesh and Blood, pp. 431-433; April, 1989, J.D. McClatchy, review of Poems: 1963-1983, p. 29; December, 1993, Ben Howard, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 164; May, 1997, Bruce Murphy, review of Selected Poems, p. 95; August, 1999, Christian Whitman, review of Poetry and Consciousness, p. 286; August, 2001, Ian Tromp, reviews of Poetry and Consciousness and Repair, p. 288; October, 2004, Dan Chiasson and Averill Curdy, review of The Singing Poems, p. 53.
  • Publishers Weekly, July 22, 1983, review of Tar, p. 126; May 11, 1992, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 58; August 29, 1994, review of Selected Poems, p. 66; November 25, 1996, review of The Vigil, p. 71; March 13, 2000, review of Misgivings, p. 72; October 27, 2003, review of The Singing, p. 59.
  • Salmagundi, spring-summer, 1997, Frederick Pollack, review of The Vigil, p. 205.
  • Shenandoah, summer, 1970, Alan Williamson, review of Lies, pp. 89-93.
  • Times Literary Supplement, December 2, 1988, Paul Muldoon, review of Poems: 1963-1983, p. 1342; January 20, 1989, Michael Hofmann, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 59; February 12, 1993, Lawrence Norfolk, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 11; October 8, 1993, Michael Parker, review of Canvas; October 3, 1997, Jamie McKendrick, review of The Vigil, p. 25; March 10, 2000, William Logan, review of Repair, p. 23.
  • TriQuarterly, winter, 1988, Reginald Gibbons, review of Flesh and Blood, pp. 224-225; spring-summer, 1991, Alan Shapiro, "In Praise of the Impure," p. 5.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 1992, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 27; winter, 1993, review of A Dream of Mind, p. S27.
  • Washington Post, July 23, 2000, Debra Dickerson, "The Parent Trap," p. X06.
  • Washington Post Book World, January 3, 1993, Michael Dirda, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 10; July 30, 1995, Stephen Dobyns, review of Selected Poems, p. 8.
  • Western Humanities Review, spring, 1970, Fred Moramarco, review of Lies, pp. 201-207; winter, 1973, John Vernon, review of I Am the Bitter Name, pp. 101-10.
  • World Literature Today, autumn, 1989, Michael Leddy, review of Poems: 1963-1983, p. 685; winter, 1989, Ashley Brown, review of Flesh and Blood, p. 104; autumn, 1992, Joachim T. Baer, review of Canvas, p. 746; spring, 1993, Bernard F. Dick, review of A Dream of Mind, p. 387; autumn, 1997, Ashley Brown, review of The Vigil, p. 794.
  • Yale Review, October 1999, Carol Muske, review of Repair, p. 154.

ONLINE

  • Boston Review, http://bostonreview.net/ (February 1, 2001), Richard Howard, review of The Vigil.
  • Online News Hour, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/ (April 19, 2000), Jim Lehrer, interview with C.K. Williams.
  • Princeton University News, http://www.princeton.edu/ (February 1, 2001), author profile.

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Audio & Podcasts

Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poetry Off the Shelf Essential American Poets The Poetry Magazine Podcast
  • Listen The Effect of Small Things
    Poems from Marie Ponsot, Laura Kasischke, Todd Boss, Campbell McGrath, and Kathleen Jamie; plus C.K. Williams on the foreboding of environmental doom.
The Poetry Magazine Podcast
  • Listen Stitched to a Wish
    Ashbery translations of Rimbaud, plus poems from Laura Kasischke, Atsuro Riley, and C.K. Williams.

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

LIFE SPAN 1936–

C. K. Williams

Biography

Hailed by poet Paul Muldoon in the Times Literary Supplement as “one of the most distinguished poets of his generation,” C.K. Williams has created a highly respected body of work, including several collections of original poems, volumes of translations, a book of criticism and a memoir. Williams is especially known as an original stylist; his characteristic line is extraordinarily long, almost prose-like, and emphasizes . . .

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