On Violence, Joy, and Justice: The Poetry of C.K. Williams

All at Once
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014
by C.K. Williams

Writers Writing Dying
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012
by C.K. Williams

On Whitman
Princeton University Press, 2010
by C.K. Williams

In his preface to On Whitman, C. K. Williams says only Shakespeare compares with Walt Whitman in providing him an “inexhaustible” source of inspiration. Yet “with both, but particularly with Whitman, I need a respite, surcease, so as not to be overwhelmed, obliterated. This is more raw than Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence,’ more primitive.”

On the dust jacket for the Whitman monograph, Michael Robertson calls Williams “one of our most Whitmanesque poets.” The idea of Williams as a Whitman for our time is not wrong, but it is incomplete and potentially misleading. Yes, Williams arrived in his third collection of poems at a long, sinuous free-verse line that reminds one, at first glance, of Whitman. Yes, one finds in Williams great sympathy for the suffering of others and a willingness to open poetry to a wide range of human experience, including parts of it many of us would rather not see.

An Alphabet

Air, element we take inside and send back altered,
Be lucid: show us the swift’s passage in twilight, the earliest stars;
Calm the undervoice that yammers what is the point? Dishevel our hair, carry away our hats and umbrellas. Even as you build clouds taller than mountains,
Favor us with the lightning’s power, the fog’s invisibility cloak. Grant us this breath and another, grant us tomorrow. Hold us closely, lest we fly apart as we would in space;
Incline your full weight so that we feel you hold us
Just as you hold the dew before nightfall, the cloud before rain;
Kiss us as we wish a lover to kiss us, without forethought or purpose.

Rilke’s America

Tell us, poet, what you do—I praise / Only, instead, the grave rasp of Kohelet / praising the dead, which are already dead / more than the living, which are yet alive.