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The Singing: A Book to Live With

Stuart Mitchner

In a 2001 Paris Review interview, the then-U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins described the difference between the novelist and the poet. While the novelist resembles a "houseguest" who moves in with you for a few weeks, the poet is someone who just appears: "A door opens and there's the poet! He says something about life and death, closes the door and is gone. Who was that masked man?"

The analogy is vintage Collins: playful and wise, like his poetry. After a visit from Billy Collins, you'll go back in your living room with a smile on your face, thoughtful but upbeat. If you share the poet's fondness for jazz, you may be in the mood for listening to something sassy and sprightly, like Horace Silver's Blowin' the Blues Away.

After a hypothetical nocturnal visit from Princeton's C. K. Williams, you'll check for storm warnings on the Weather Channel, put Berlioz's Requiem on the stereo, and give everyone in your family a hug. Billy Collins's poetry will both move and amuse you. C.K. Williams's National Book Award- winning volume The Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20) will put you right there with Matthew Arnold looking out the window and hearing "the eternal note of sadness" as Dover Beach becomes "a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/Where ignorant armies clash by night."

The poetry in The Singing doesn't close the door and vanish into the night. It stays with you. You live with it. For me, the best poetry is intimate and companionable. You can put it in your pocket. Or you can type it up and carry it around with you as I once did with "Dover Beach" and Keats's "Ode On a Grecian Urn."

It was hard not to think of the most quoted line from Keats's great Ode – "Beauty is truth and truth beauty" – at the Symposium on Beauty a few weeks ago, featuring C.K. Williams along with composer Milton Babbitt and painter Frank Stella. The panelists were to consider whether or not beauty was relevant to 20th-century art. While the composer and the painter amusingly defined and defended their artistic territory, the poet spoke feelingly of beauty and despair in the context of an embattled planet. Reading his poem, "The Storm," he alone of the panelists expressed through his own work the relevance of beauty as truth, and the audience responded with an intensity clearly surpassing the reception they gave the composer and the painter.

The Singing is divided into four parts. The first section ranges through edgy encounters with strangers in Princeton and Paris, nature (doves and a doe), death and desire, a grandson's fall ("tripping on a toy"), a girl's fatal fall, a Rembrandt self-portrait, a Flamenco guitarist, a difficult, deceased ex-friend, a family scene in a Normandy garden. The subject of Part II is "Of Childhood and the Dark." Part III is an elegy for a friend. The message in Part IV, clearly post-9/11, is in the titles of the first three poems, "War," "Fear," "Chaos."

This poet sees for us and feels for us. In "The World," the poem he chooses to end Part I with, he sees butterflies in a Normandy garden, simply sees them, citing another poet's metaphor rather than making explicit poetry of them himself; then he sees a painting for us without attempting to make it over, only mentioning the possibility of insinuations and symbols but "when one starts thinking symbol, what isn't?" In the last stanza he, the seer, husband, in-law, simply sees the scene in the garden, his wife with her father and sisters. Again he suggests what he might make of the scene: "everything and everyone might stand for something else, be something else," but he chooses not to imagine what that might be. The reality is too "solid" to disturb by seeing it as anything other than what it is. No need to add "mystery" – "Except for us, for how we take the world/to us and make it more, more than we are, more even than itself." Which is, of course, what the poem has just done by so effectively not appearing to do it. He has let us apprehend and compose the poem with him. We're there beside him. This suggests the quality I had in mind when I spoke of poetry as "intimate" and "companionable."

What makes Mr. Williams's "Elegy for an Artist" remarkable is the way he seems to feel for the reader even as he's addressing a deeply personal poem to a specific individual. The obvious risk is that the poem becomes so personal it excludes us or leaves us feeling embarrassed, like eavesdroppers on a private ceremony. Instead, the unaffected statement of love and loss speaks to anyone who has ever felt this way or wanted to say these things to a loved one, in this case a beloved friend, for it's as much a love poem as an elegy.

I first read several of the poems in Part IV in The New Yorker, "The War" in the aftermath of September 11, "The Hearth" in the context of the Iraq war. Here the horror and folly of the reality seem too stark to be seen head on. Here there is need for analogy and association, some sort of poetical cover. It's one thing to sustain the solid unadorned "reality" of a pleasant moment in a garden in "The World" or to express unadorned loss in "Elegy for an Artist." In "War" the reader has the diversion of Mayan scribes, Greek and Trojan gods, and mesoamerican cities before Williams looks right at the reality of "the twisted carcasses of steel and ash" and "these violations which almost more than any ark or altar/embody sanctity by enacting so precisely sanctity's desecration."

These last poems, these wartime dispatches from the homefront, would require a separate review to do them justice. I could quote any one of a dozen lines or stanzas from Part IV and you would know that Princeton has a poet who is seeing and feeling this grim time for us as bravely and lucidly as he can.

The Singing is a book to live with and it's available at local bookstores. Only $20 for a book to help you see and to see you through.

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