By Melissa Arkin
The Writers at Rutgers Series brought a second award-winning poet to visit this season when C. K. Williams read on the evening of February 23. Once again, the room at the Zimmerli Art Museum overflowed with more people than there were seats, and the packed audience clearly enjoyed Mr. Williams’s performance as a poet and a storyteller.
Mr. Williams read from his newest book The Singing, which won the National Book Award for 2003. His previous book, Repair, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1999. He is known for his daring formal style, marrying perceptive everyday observations to lines so long that they defy the usual conventions of lyric poetry. His verbose poems often border on the prosaic, inspiring critics to compare them to the work of Walt Whitman.
Professor Harriet Davidson introduced Mr. Williams as part of a "long tradition of New Jersey poets,” because he was raised in Newark. Listing such recognized greats as Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg, Professor Davidson noted, “C. K. Williams is no small part of that legacy.” She described Mr. Williams’s ability to communicate everything from odd everyday encounters to the tragedy of historical events in an engaging poetic voice, and added, “It changes the way you see.”
With enthusiastic applause from the crowd, Mr. Williams took his place at the podium. Although he said he had never been to Rutgers before, he acknowledged his local roots by reading poems that dealt with his experiences growing up in New Jersey. His poems encompassed a great variety of observations and descriptions of encounters in New Jersey. “Peggy” is about a horse in Jamesburg NJ, but also about the open farmlands of the Garden State that have been increasingly developed over the years. “Sanctity” describes the experience of having been run over by a truck while working at a Turnpike rest stop, while “Gas Station” is a candid exploration of the emotions of adolescence.
There seemed to be very little that Mr. Williams would refrain from discussing, and the elements of autobiographical storytelling in his poems surprised and tickled the audience. Williams’s poem “Gas” – about a certain bodily function not usually discussed in poetry – drew great laughter. Yet it was Mr. Williams’s outspokenness about current events that was most poignant. A poem written about the recent election, “The Blade,” compares the “dark period” under Franco’s oppressive rule in Spain to some aspects of contemporary American life. Mr. Williams’s reading concluded with a poem entitled “Shrapnel,” which focused on war on a personal level by describing its impact on the individuals who fight.
Writing political poetry is nothing new to Mr. Williams. He began his career as an antiwar poet with the publication of Lies in 1969, after finding that poetry was a way to express his outrage about the Vietnam War. In a recent profile in The New York Times, he stated that even though his political commitments have become less obvious in his poetry, they never simply disappear: “It is always there, but it is more subliminal and is no longer on the surface. I do not want to be dogmatic.”
Mr. Williams answered questions from audience members, signed books, and stayed for the usual reception following the reading. After such a compelling performance, many guests stayed late into the evening to discuss the reading, recalling similar experiences from their own lives and rereading favorite lines from the poems.
The Writers at Rutgers readings by Jean Valentine and C. K. Williams gave Rutgers audiences a strong impression of the great range of possibilities embraced by contemporary poetry. Though their styles are completely different, both well-known poets are accomplished artists who are completely dedicated to their craft. One suspects that a future great “ New Jersey poet” might have been sitting in the audience for both of those events, feeling inspired.
More about C. K. Williams and The Singing
Writers at Rutgers