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'Something Like the Good'

November 8, 2007 By:
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C.K. Williams is one of the most honored of American poets, having won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987 for Flesh and Blood, the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for Repair and the National Book Award in 2003 for The Singing. He's been extremely prolific: nine books of poetry in all; a volume of essays, Poetry and Consciousness; and a classic memoir of Jewish family life and dysfunction titled Misgivings, as well as having done numerous translations of plays and poetry. The sheer size of his output has been underscored this year by the appearance of Collected Poems, which is set to be reissued in paperback this month by Farrar Straus and Giroux. It runs to nearly 700 pages. What other American poet, besides perhaps Philadelphia's own Stephen Berg, has been so consistently productive in a career that has rarely flagged in close to four decades?

And yet, Williams has his detractors, despite the evidence. The major complaint has been that his long Whitmanesque lines can be too self-referential for their own good, tipping, at times, into the worst kind of sentimentality, even bathos.

Williams has, no doubt, drawn from his own experiences -- often utilizing them in a raw, seemingly unprocessed manner -- as the central source for the poetic world he's constructed. In his earlier books, it seemed, at least to me, that he was able to skate over some of the worst excesses of the narrow, confessional mode that's hampered much American verse since the bad old days of the 1960s and '70s. Through a delicate balancing act, he's managed to transcend the factual, thus taking the unadorned particulars of everyday life and transforming them into something universal.

But even I, who thought the criticism of Williams was misguided, began, back in 2004, with the publication of The Singing, to have doubts. That book seemed to split in half, with the first section reinforcing my sense of Williams' strength, and the second nearly convincing me that his critics might be right.

When I wrote about The Singing, I said it was difficult to explain how the problems arose, that Williams' tone and execution have rarely varied throughout his career, and that they remained steady in the nearly 30 poems that made up his new book -- which left me hard pressed to explain what went so wrong.

I know now after making my way through the Collected Poems that the problem, for me, occurs not when Williams is at his most personal, but when he moves into the realm of politics. His language loses that unexplainable balance and is drained of all that is poetic about it.

There From the Beginning

Another thing I've discovered in reassessing Williams' career is that the problem was there from the start, as far back as 1967, with the poems in Lies. And it continues through all nine volumes, strongest during the political wranglings in the 1960s and '70s, and swelling again with the onset of the Iraq war, as rendered in certain poems in The Singing. One can trace the line that definitively.

But what the Collected Poems reminds you of forcefully is the breadth and depth of Williams' talent -- its beauty, and the mystery of how he does it. Here is the first half of "Friends" (it's too long to quote in its entirety), which offers an example that, in its shifting metaphors and pointed imagery, has a power all its own.

 

My friend Dave knew a famous writer who used to have screwdrivers for breakfast.

He'd start with half gin and half juice and the rest of the day he'd sit with the same glass

in the same chair and add gin. The drink would get paler and paler, finally he'd pass out.

Every day was the same. Sometimes, when I'm making milk for the baby, cutting the thick,

sweet formula from the can with sterilized water, the baby, hungry again, still hungry,

rattling his rickety, long-legged chair with impatience, I think of that story.

Dave says the writer could talk like a god. He'd go on for hours in the same thought.

In his books, though, you never find out why he drove so hard toward his death.

I have a death in my memory that lately the word itself always brings back. I'm not quite sure why.

A butterfly, during a downpour one afternoon, hooked onto my screen. I thought it was waiting.

The light was just so. Its eyes caught the flare so it seemed to be watching me in my bed.

When I got up to come closer and it should have been frightened, it hung on.

After the rain, it was still there. Its eyes were still shining. I touched the screen

and it fell to the ledge. There were blue streaks on its wings. A while later, the wind took it.

The writer drowned in his puke or his liver exploded -- it depends on the story.

He was a strong man, for all that. He must have thought it was taking forever.

Dave says when he'd wake with amnesia, he wouldn't want to fill in the gaps.

He just wanted his gin and his juice. From all that you hear, he was probably right.

 

When Williams turns to his other persona, he seems to lose the power to objectify his emotions, to be unable to find the proper metaphors to contain them, and they are simply there on the page, raw, undigested, but in an embarrassing way. The language appears to break down -- or perhaps it's the thought behind the language -- so that Williams' long lines become just strings of words, not too different from a straight prose that happens to be broken into odd, longish lines.

The opening of "In the Forest," from The Singing, is indicative of the problem:

 

In a book about war, tyranny, oppression, political insanity and corruption

in a prison camp, in a discussion in which some inmates are trying to contend

with a vision of a world devoid of real significance, of existence being no more

than brute violence, of the human propensity to destroy itself and everything else,

 

someone, an old man, presumably wise, tells of having gone to live in a forest,

far in the North, pristine, populated by no one but poor woodsmen and hermits;

he went there, he says, because he thought in that mute, placid domain of the trees,

he might find beyond the predations of animals and men something like the good.

 

In other, better poems, Williams makes us aware that violence or pain fill his narrator with anguish, and that, to comprehend what he's going through, he must objectify the experience. Here, the ideas are stated in such an unvarnished manner that they're nothing more than flat political statements -- and not profound ones at that. It seems at such moments that Williams wishes to be admired more for the correctness of his sentiments than for his poetic abilities, which may be the most shocking element in the entire mix.

But the Collected Poems has shown me that these missteps have been far outnumbered by some astonishing work. Not that Williams has foresworn the political; mixed in among the new poems he's included here, there's one that deals with President George W. Bush's triumph in the 2004 presidential election. And there's an equivalence made between the Republican Party and the fascists in Spain under Francisco Franco.

Williams, when he's good, is so far beyond such simplistic thinking that these moments of rhetorical weakness can make the reader blush.

 

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