At Play With C.K. Williams: A Shape-Shifter Breaks for the Goal
For the long hard slog through the eight years of the Bush presidency, it helped to have Paul Krugman’s Op Ed columns in the New York Times, and Frank Rich’s meditations in the Sunday Times Week in Review. While Krugman and Rich were trying to make intelligent sense of an ongoing national calamity, the poet C.K. Williams offered another, more deeply felt level of understanding. The columnists were like sentries in the watch tower. The poet was a troubled citizen speaking in a low compelling voice one-on-one to troubled readers in poems like “The War,” “Night” and “The Hearth,” which I read as they appeared in the New Yorker and again in The Singing (Farrar, Straus and Grioux 2003), the subject of my June 9, 2004 column (“A Book to Live With”). Remarking on the “intimate and companionable” qualities of the collection, I ended by saying it would take a separate review to do justice to “these wartime dispatches from the homefront” by a poet “who is seeing and feeling this grim time for us as bravely and lucidly as he can.”
My sense of Williams as a one-on-one poet writing for us, with us, as though on our behalf, a quality also expressed in my review of his Collected Poems (“Look, He Has Come Through,” Dec. 6, 2006), began with a reading of “The Hearth” in the March 3, 2003 New Yorker, two weeks before the invasion of Iraq. While the image of a hearth suggests something comfortable and inviting, what you find when you enter the poem is a “recalcitrant fire” the poet (alone “after the news”) is “stirring up” as he follows a course of dark thought (fire blinding and maiming someone, nature devouring its prey) that leads to the war and the “more than fear” he feels for his children and grandchildren. Once he has the fire blazing, “its glow on the windows makes the night even darker but it barely keeps the room warm.” By the time you come to the last line (“I stroke it again and crouch closer”), you’re there in the chilly room with him holding your hands toward the same fading fire.
A decade later there are two new books, both published this month, Writers Writing Dying (FSG $27.50), a collection of recent poetry, and In Time: Poets, Poems, and the Rest (University of Chicago Press $27.50), a collection of prose writings and interview excerpts containing an essay, “On Being Old,” in which he discusses some developments in his later poetry. Referring to poems “unlike any” he’d written before, he notes that there “seemed to have arrived in them an element of not only the irrational but also the absurd, a willed goofiness.” After addressing the possibility that maybe he “was tired of being logical, rational, lucid, ‘mature,’” he admits that when he “hit seventy” he realized he “hadn’t changed a bit” since he was eighteen, still “chartless,” still “meandering through the world.”
While the poet of the dark time expressed in “The Hearth” has gone through some exciting changes in recent years, perhaps inspired in part by the election of Obama in 2008 and the accompanying surge of relief, hope, and irrational exhilaration (renewed several times over three weeks ago), it’s not so much that he’s less lucid and rational, just that his recent manner tends to be more daring, headlong, and aggressive, as if he’d received a charge of adolescent energy to go with a turn toward all-out, no-holds-barred performance that would seem to be somewhat at odds with his former companionableness.
After providing a stern if generally appreciative assessment of Williams’s Collected Poems, Dan Chiasson concludes his Dec. 24, 2006 New York Times review by disparaging the later work, where “the contest between comfort and distress feels rigged for comfort” and the poems “tip from too much sentiment.” The suggestion is that the poet who once “tested poetry against ugliness, the imagination against the world,” has given way to Williams the doting grandfather (“There are hazards to being around one’s grandchildren, and one of them is that a person’s poems will suffer”). At the end, carried along by the negative momentum he’s riding, Chiasson reduces the poet whose entire career was the ostensible subject to someone who “settles for the dreary, flummoxed middle zone of life where the rest of us are consigned to live: really loving our ‘children, and their children,’ really hating the president.”
It’s tempting to think that Williams profited from the negatives of that high-profile notice while avoiding inane advisories about the “hazards” of grandchildren. In that sense, perhaps Chiasson indirectly contributed to the edgier, more adventurous, more combative manner of the later poetry (a quote from the same review is featured on the dust jacket of In Time).
Far from being wary of the grandchildren, Williams brings all three of them into the new collection’s penultimate poem, “The Day Continues Lovely.” Thus the undaunted poet manages to test “poetry against ugliness, the imagination against the world” in the same room with children “more golden than gold” and a beloved dog asleep on the floor even as he’s summoning Kierkegaard, Buber, and some full-throated shouting from the voice of God. Plus he’s riffing and rapping on the notion of prayer, because he “Can’t. Pray.” So he conjures up “the Binary Kid” and instead of praying on he plays on “God, not God”; “Good, bad./Hate love”; “Galaxy on. Galaxy off.” But then, when he’s through dancing from switch to switch in the “space between on and off,” singing the mind-body electric, going expansively and allusively nuts, he companionably opens the door and lets us into his children-golden room as one of them wakes up, the dog, too, and comes to see what he’s doing, “Turner leans his head on my shoulder to peek./What am I doing? Thinking of Kierkegaard. Thinking of beauty. Thinking of prayer.”
So there we are again, with Williams in the moment.
The post-2008-election changes in Williams’s work are actually already taking exhilarating form in “The Foundation,” which appeared in the New Yorker (March 23, 2009) two months after Obama was clumsily sworn in (it’s also the penultimate poem in the 2010 collection, Wait). “Watch me, I’m running, watch me, I’m dancing” — so Williams begins this “jubilant song of the ruins,” reliving and reimagining the memory of exploring the rubble of a Newark building site. Like a grown-up kid at play, he revels in the sheer fun of celebrating his heroes and mentors — “Watch me again now, because I’m not alone in my dancing,/my being air, I’m with my poets, my Rilke, my Yeats,/we’re leaping together through the debris, a jumble of wrack/but my Keats floats across it, my Herbert and Donne.”
“Play” and “playing” are among the operative words in “The Foundation” as well as in the poems in Writers Writing Dying that appear to be its descendants, whether the subject is death and work in the title poem, being a poet in “Whacked” or being a “cad” in “Salt.”
In “Whacked,” where Williams takes amused poetic possession of the slang for “kill” made famous in The Sopranos, some of the same poets he was romping with in “The Foundation” are all over him, not just the Yeatses and Herberts but whole tribes of younger poets and even the bad ones whose “whackless poems” can still “hurt you.” It’s a deceptively confessional poem (“I’ve read reams, I’ve written as many”) disguised as a spree in which the poet runs wild with a single word — in effect, the 6’5 Williams, a former basketball player at Bucknell, grabs the ball called whack and runs with it, weaving through the whack-whack-whacking opposition into the open, an all-out fast break taking him to some wondrous figures (“warm tangles of musical down as from the breasts of the choiring dawn-tangling larks”) on the way to a magnificently unlikely concluding image. In the second stanza, almost before we know it, he’s become a mustang “stampeding” through the “sweet-seeming” poems of Elizabeth Bishop on his way to becoming the last stanza’s “old racehorse.” Will they put him out to pasture? Not a chance, he’s too slippery, he’s as slyly shape-shifting as he ever was, “like a mare” now “giving birth, arm in my own uterine channel to tug out another,/one more, only one more, poor damp little poem, then I’ll be happy — I promise, I swear.”
There’s not much to say of such audacity except to be glad that somewhere between 2007 and 2011 Williams gave himself up to a more brazen, playful muse.
And the course he runs in “Salt” is no less wild and woolly, doing for the term “cad” what he did for “whacked” and putting “miniature mountains” of the salt of caddish deception in a Cornell box (Dali would love it) that also contains a flock of his former lovers, “their beaks open now not to berate but stereophonically warble forgiveness.” Again the zany moves of the uninhibited muse lead to touches like the “memory moon, still glowing” in a corner of the box, which brings him back to salt’s equivalent “anapests, iambs, enjambments” and the saving grace of verse. As in the title poem that concludes the collection, it’s ultimately all about the endgame. In “Salt,” he quotes Sir Thomas Wyatt, “which is why I can croon now, ‘My lute be still …” and why I can cry. ‘… for I have done.” But the last line of the last poem is no less infused with play: “and if you’re dead or asleep who really cares?/Such fun to wake up though! Such fun too if you don’t! Keep dying! Keep writing it down!”
The appropriately spirited painting on the cover of Writers Writing Dying is the work of the poet’s son, Jed Williams.