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
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. And like Whitman’s, his poetry is informed with a political awareness, though it lacks Whitman’s pre–Civil War faith in an ideal America.
Though critics who accuse Whitman of lacking a sense of evil read him shallowly, it is true that Whitman is not much inclined to reflect analytically on evil, anxiety, and despair. There are moments when his insouciance wavers (for example, the passage in “Song of Myself” that begins “Somehow I have been stunned. Stand back!”). He does not so much resolve his doubts as dismiss them by sheer force of will and resume his
affirmative stance. For the most part, his response to violence or injustice is to bear witness and move on, not brood on its causality or accuse the violent or unjust. In the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, he says, “The poet judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing.” As for the rest, “faith is the antiseptic of the soul.” Williams’s temperament, in contrast, is skeptical. Perhaps not all the way down, but Whitman’s disinfectant is not in his first-aid kit. And sometimes he judges as fiercely as William Blake. There is remarkably little anger in Whitman but plenty of it in Williams, directed at political injustice and, sometimes, at the very terms of human existence. “Be not curious about God,” says Whitman, but Williams is, and it’s often a horrified fascination. Williams’s question is Job’s: “Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power?” (Job 21.7)
The way Williams’s poems encounter the world also demarcates him from Whitman. Whitman is typically “afoot with [his] vision,” walking abroad in search of every kind of person, animal, plant, or landscape the expanding American nation has to offer and pausing to name and praise it in a line or two before pressing on. In Williams, the world comes to the poet without his seeking it, and sometimes against his will. Typically, he is indoors when something outside insinuates itself into his awareness. “From My Window,” the first poem in Tar (1983), makes as good an illustration as any: two street people, whom the speaker has noticed before, appear beneath his study window; as he watches, a search to infer the history informing what he observes opens outward from that noticing. Whitman strides through the landscape seeking encounter; Williams is pulled, often reluctantly, into engagement with something he has not sought. Like the wedding guest confronted by Coleridge’s ancient mariner, “he cannot choose but hear.”
If Williams is our Whitman, he is a Whitman with post-Freudian psychology, prone to lacerating analysis of his own motives and a passion for moral inquiry and clarification. This desire for justice and moral self-knowledge drives an obsessively recursive syntax that sidewinds through hypotactic qualifiers and self-interruptions, so much unlike the paratactic sweep of Whitman’s lines that gather all things equally into anaphoric plenitude. He’s a Whitman with tsuris (problems), whose Jewishness contributes much to his way of attending to suffering and injustice.
Writers Writing Dying
Williams’s new book, Writers Writing Dying, is probably his angriest and most bitter yet—and this from a poet who called one of his collections I Am the Bitter Name. In part, as the title suggests, the bitterness arises from the poet’s confrontation with his own mortality: he too is a writer writing dying. In “Cancer,” he acknowledges his bout with the illness that took the lives of both of his parents; “fuck you,” he tells the “cancer-fiend,” for all of the poets and friends it has extinguished—the poem is a sort of contemporary counterpart of William Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers,” with its refrain of “timor mortis conturbat me” (the fear of death disquiets me). It also amasses a roll-call of favorite poets who have written about death before him—it confronts not just the brute fact of death, but also the problem of finding a way to write about it at all and accepting the inevitable ending of our own lives and the lives of those we love.
The other source of anger and bitterness in Writers Writing Dying is the national debasement of ethics and language—two of Williams’s central concerns—in post-9/11 America, which Tom Engelhardt has aptly called “The United States of Fear.” It is not just his own death the poet confronts, but also the deaths inflicted in the name of “the homeland” on uncounted Iraqis and Afghans, as well as victims of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and who can be sure where else, not to mention the deaths of our own troops. And he mourns the loss of a widely shared public discourse that names, acknowledges, and mourns those deaths. Reading these poems reminds me that the next loss, unless we come to our senses quickly, will be the earth itself.
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Breslin, Paul. 2014. On Violence, Joy, and Justice: The Poetry of C.K. Williams. Tikkun 29(4): 49.