Wanting to get down some words in honor of the luminous poet C.K. Williams, who died in Princeton on Sept. 20, aged 78, I started through my collection of his books, turning first, understandably, to one of the more recent, a thin 2012 volume titled Writers Writing Dying. The first poem is called “Whacked,” and it begins:
Every morning of my life I sit at my desk getting whacked by some great poet or other.
Some Yeats, some Auden, some Herbert or Larkin, and lately a whole tribe of others—
oi!—younger than me. Whack! Wiped out, every day … I mean since becoming a poet.
I mean wanting to—one never is, really a poet. Or I’m not. Not when I’m trying to write,
Though then comes a line, maybe another, but still pops up again Yeats, say, and again whacked.
So, here you have several elements of the quintessential Williams: the long line, inspired by Whitman; the anecdotal launch, from which he might leap anywhere; the loping, conversational rhythm; the thoughtful tone, the willingness to be embarrassed, the gratitude for existence, the self-doubt, the historical awareness … and the sudden turn. So, for example, in the second stanza of “Whacked,” the ever-alert poet realizes that “whack” has another meaning in crime movies, namely, murder, rub out; another exemplary Williams move, to let the wobbles of the well-furnished mind lift him out of the immediate context only to spin him into another, partially overlapping universe.
Many have rightly called Williams a “moral” poet, which is fair enough, when you consider, for example, the second poem in Writers Writing Dying, which is headed with an epigraph by the Japanese poet Basho, which begins by noting fighter planes flying over his childhood Newark home, and soon you can make out that it’s 1945, and the wretched words start to show up, “Japs, “Nazis,” “torture,” “my favorite bomber: the Liberator,” “Cities are burning,” and then this prophetic lamentation:
Poets in coats of straw, burning. What is our flaw, we human beings? What is our error?
followed, inimitably, by a line that includes the word “tushy.” From the sublime to the low-down.
He and I once had an enjoyable argument—half playful, half earnest—on the question of whether too many books were being published. I thought so. He thought not. His was the greater democratic faith. He was a populist, not meaning someone tasteless or talking down, but a man who lives in the large—360 degrees around. He was large and he contained a mishmash of multitudes and privileged no objects, no cultural levels, over others. I heard him read his work several times in several cities, and I was always struck by the modesty of his demeanor. He knew his work was read, and loved, and he didn’t think anyone’s reading or admiration, or love, was more or less worthy than anyone else’s.
His acute sensitivity to the larger world—a world so often made small by a surplus of suffering—did not take him over the brink to endless kvetching. This is why his work is so bracing. He looks to the dignity of the questioning human being, and the joyful one, and does not separate the two. His love poems are astounding. He is unabashed about soul-search, as here (“Brain,” from Wait):
I was traversing the maze of my brain; corridors, corners, strange, narrow caverns, dead ends.
Then all at once my being like this in my brain, this sense of being my brain, became unbearable to me.
I began to wonder in dismay if the conclusion I’d long ago come to that there can be nothing
that might reasonably be postulated as the soul apart from body and mind was entirely valid.
What does he need a soul for? But he is not willing to stop grappling with it, or its absence, or whatever it is.
Williams was Jewish, but neither doctrinally nor complacently. It isn’t surprising to come upon his conceit that the Jew that Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov sees on a bridge—the generic Jew—turns out to be Paul Celan. Williams struggles to make sense of the Dostoyevsky of redemption and forgiveness, who is also the Dostoyevsky who could write of a character: “His face wore that perpetual look of peevish dejection, which is so sourly printed on all faces of Jewish race without exception.” It is not enough to condemn; but it is important to fathom.
Williams was not scared away from political themes by the charge of didacticism or propaganda, though when he started writing against the Vietnam war, that was precisely the accusation wheeled out by elders on their long slide into obscurity. Then, whole anthologies’ worth of poets were trying to bridge the abyss between the self-tormented life inside the skull and the poisoned life at risk “out there.” Like the best, Williams wondered, with Auden, whether poetry made anything happen. In a poem called “Draft 23,” he asked:
… are we trying to change the world by changing the words?
Delete malice oppression tyranny poverty cruelty by our rage our raging obsession to amend?
He could write a poem called “Shrapnel” and evoke more than horror. He could write “Money,” one of a suite of poems written for Martin Luther King, Jr., on the 40th anniversary of his murder, and invoke not just rage but anguish over the human waste. He could take the bluntest of condemnations or elegies and turn them lyric, as here: “ … we hid our eyes like Masaccio’s miserable Adam as we slunk from our Eden, for this was our Eden?” He could place Cassandra in Iraq and have her ask:
In this tale of lies, of treachery, of superfluous dead,
were there ever so many who were right and disdained?
A lesser poet might have left it at that—the claim of rectitude, richly deserved. But Williams goes on:
With no notion what to do next? If we were true seers,
as prescient as she, as frenzied, we’d know what to do next.
It’s not enough to be right. What would be enough, if anything would, would be to know what to do with your rightness.
It’s one of the nasty surprises of life that some sour people can write sweetly, but Charlie Williams (which is what most people called him) was, during the 20 years I knew him, the sweetest and kindest of men. It sounds too pat, but there it is. He liked to do favors for people he liked and, for all I know, people he didn’t like, and I never heard him in a haranguing state of mind, although the first time we met he expressed a mighty disappointment with some policies of then-President Bill Clinton.
At a time when the preferred vehicle for much poetry is the showboat, or a motorcycle blasting down the street, front wheel high in the air, Williams stuck with dignity, which was enough to take the measure of a world in which feeling, if you open up to it, is never far away.
Williams was intellectually serious, deeply educated, possessed of a fine mind but never at the expense of his poet’s ear, the organ that carries the saving grace that
… can whirl through the rubble of everything else
the philosophizing and theories, the thesis and anti- and syn-
all I believed must be what meanings were made of,
when really it was the singing, the choiring, the cadence,
the lull of the vowels, the chromatical consonant clatter …
… their jubilant song of the ruins.
And then there’s this, for his departed friends:
… remembering when Erv Goffman was dying and I said, “What will I do with only one superego?”
and he laughed, and I laughed, and what can you do, with everyone plucked out of your life except laugh?
Or not laugh, not every day, but not cry either, or maybe a little, maybe cry just a little, a little.
He is the man. He suffered. He was there. He was a light, and the poems his illuminations.
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Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.