2004-2005 Writers at Rutgers Reading Series

C.K. Williams

Title: C.K. Williams
When: Wed, Oct 27 2004 | 8 PM
Where
: Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Lower Dodge Gallery - New Brunswick
Category
: Writers at Rutgers Reading Series


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Admission: Free and open to the Rutgers community and the general public
The reading will be followed by a reception and book signing

Biography

C. K. Williams has published nine books of poetry, beginning with Lies in 1969. Since that time, he has been steadily building his reputation as an innovative and intense poet. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for Repair, followed by the National Book Award in 2003 for The Singing, solidified his place as one of the most esteemed living American poets.

Williams is known for his daring formal style, marrying perceptive everyday observations to lines so long that they defy the conventions of lyric poetry. His verbose poems often border on the prosaic, inspiring critics to compare them to Walt Whitman's. The Singing, Williams' most recent collection, explores topics surrounding aging: the loss of loved ones, the love of grandchildren, and the struggle to retain memories of childhood even while dealing with the complexity of current events.

Williams began his career as a strong anti-war writer, and in a recent profile in The New York Times stated that he still feels pulled in that direction: "It is always there, but it is more subliminal and is no longer on the surface. I do not want to be dogmatic."

When asked about the typical inspiration for his poems, Williams answered: "That varies wildly. It can be some little scene that I see in the street. It can be a little piece of language that comes to me. The most interesting thing about a poem is that it doesn't exist until it has its music. Every poem has a music. And until it has that, it's not a poem. It's just information or data that's floating around in your head or on your desk."

Williams was born in New Jersey in 1936 and was educated at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his numerous awards are the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Lila Acheson Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund Writer's Award, the PEN/Voelker Career Achievement in Poetry Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and grants from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. Repair (1999) received the Pulitzer Prize, and The Singing (2003) won the National Book Award. He has authored three works in translation: Sophocles' Women of Trachis; The Lark. The Thrush. The Starling. (Poems from Issa); and The Bacchae of Euripides. His other collections of poetry are Lies (1969), I Am The Bitter Name (1972), With Ignorance (1977), Tar (1983), Flesh and Blood (1987), A Dream of Mind (1992) and The Vigil (1996). He has also published Poetry and Consciousness, a book of essays, and Misgivings, a memoir. He currently teaches creative writing at Princeton University, and lives part of the year in the countryside of France.

Poems

The Singing

I was walking home down a hill near our house on a balmy afternoon
under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with
their burgeoning forth

When a young man turned in from a corner singing no it was more of
a cadenced shouting
Most of which I couldn't catch I thought because the young man was
black speaking black

It didn't matter I could tell he was making his song up which pleased
me he was nice-looking
Husky dressed in some style of big pants obviously full of himself
hence his lyrical flowing over

We went along in the same direction then he noticed me there almost
beside him and "Big"
He shouted-sang "Big" and I thought how droll to have my height
incorporated in his song

So I smiled but the face of the young man showed nothing he looked
in fact pointedly away
And his song changed "I'm not a nice person" he chanted "I'm not
I'm not a nice person"

No menace was meant I gathered no particular threat but he did want
to be certain I knew
That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord
between us I should forget it

That's all nothing else happened his song became indecipherable to
me again he arrived
Where he was going a house where a girl in braids waited for him on
the porch that was all

No one saw no one heard all the unasked and unanswered questions
were left where they were
It occurred to me to sing back "I'm not a nice person either" but I
couldn't come up with a tune

Besides I wouldn't have meant it nor he have believed it both of us
knew just where we were
In the duet we composed the equation we made the conventions to
which we were condemned

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something
is watching and listening
Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though no one saw nor
heard no one was there

Responses

Five Questions for C.K. Williams

(Questions by Melissa Arkin)

1. Are there any poets or writers you've found especially inspiring?

There are so many it's almost impossible to count them. If I just speak of the most recent, Eugenio Montale, the Italian poet, and Emily Dickinson are the ones I've been reading and thinking about most. I've also been reading the great Russian Poet Maria Tsvetaeva's essays, which are like poems.

2. How do you approach finding a form for each of your poems?

Usually I begin to hear some sort of verse-music, or something promising it, and then I try to find the form that will best contain it, and enable it to be elaborated.

3. Many of your poems expand upon a brief encounter you've had, capturing a particular moment in time. How do you go about shaping those moments into a poem?

With a sledge-hammer, sometimes, with a pen-knife others. I really can't specify anything else: the writing of poems remains a mystery, perhaps more to the people who write them than to anyone else.

4. How have recent events affected your writing?

I've been very depressed about the directions in which our country seems to be moving. I've tried to write about it, but mostly I haven't been able to, which makes it even more depressing.

5. The last section of The Singing makes reference to ancient battles. How do the far past and the present combine in your poetry?

I think the past and the present combine in all of us, whether consciously or not, all the time. We carry our histories with us just as we carry our genes.