Recently I watched a movie on C.K. Williams in which James Franco played Williams.
The Color of Time, what an apt title.
I remember meeting C.K. at Brockport’s Writers’ Craft when he did his reading downtown. He signed my essay and described how he was co-teaching at Princeton when they told him he had won the Pulitzer Prize. At the tail end of his reading, he waved to the writers in the far back balcony where I was and I waved back and he said, “A gestation…”
He was a lot taller than I though he’d be.
Anyway, I decided to post this essay I wrote on him b/c I’m fairly proud of it — cut out the conclusion though — didn’t care for it, in retrospect.
Consciousness and the Sound of Thought
C.K. Williams’ mind cannot, will not shut off. It must ramble; it must careen. The wit and humor and the engaged incessant quirkiness of his mind come off the page and into the reader’s mind, inspiring liberal thoughts of his or her own. This type of open communication between poet and reader is the goal of such a communicative poet. Williams, a very well-read man, lets his thoughts out in trickles of lucid free verse. With assonance, alliteration and decisive end-stopped and enjambed lines, Williams weaves his theses through the living labyrinth of his mind. Decidedly a liberal, political poet, this maze draws the reader in considering recent political topics such as Iraq and America in general. Not knowing exactly where it will take us, we still trust the writer with his careful commas and stanza breaks. And when the sound of words reverberates so naturally in the mind’s eye, the reader pays attention, feeling a sense of connection to the poet and his elevated thoughts. The end goal achieved is consciousness. The poems enact consciousness in the very essence of consciousness which is the human optical nerve which is connected to the mind which draws sublime connection to the page which emits light of new poetical thought. Thus the words on the page are not contrived by theory and bookish notions but by a man longing, searching for a connection. Such poems demand attention as the very sound of thought hisses together in alliteration, begging a question, an inference or an observation.
Foremost Williams’ came to master this art of creating poetic consciousness on the page, as he writes in his essay, “Beginnings,” while working on a poem about the holocaust entitled, “A Day for Anne Frank.” As a Jew he felt he could ascertain enough conviction to do the poem justice but it was only after realizing his ‘political innocence’ of the black experience in America that he could really sit down and write the poem. What occurred, exactly, that triggered this award-winning poet’s mind? Williams explains: “I’d had to split myself from myself, the way I’d had to confront the falsity and self-forgiveness of my own attitudes, that had opened up a new way of thinking for me.” This is crucial to understand for any aspiring poet or writer. For we all harbor social, political attitudes, yet the discipline of poetry, especially with such a sociological scope, is “having to balance two apparently contradictory ethical attitudes at the same time, having to realize the contingency of my own convictions…to force them to a more rigorous, more honest level…a dialectical event” (Williams). This dialectical event is consciousness; ‘the struggle to be fully human’ to get over oneself in order to place the subject matter on an objective template.
In such rigorously-wrought fashion, the poet starts on his winding path to create a dialectical experience on the page. In “Wait,” the title poem of the book, Williams begins with a cleaver: “Chop, hack, slash; chop, hack, slash; cleaver, boning knife, ax–” (89). The rhythm right away indicates a choppy musicality which draws to mind the act of cleaving meat from bone in a butcher’s shop. Williams quickly moves into the metaphorical conceit of the poem:
…as do you, dismember me, render me, leave me slop in a pail,
one part of my body a hundred years old, one not even there anymore,
another still riven with idiot vigor, voracious as the youth I was
for whom everything always was going too slowly, too slowly (89).
This rambling clause, cordoned off with cascading steps of commas, encapsulates a life time of realization. Have we all not in some way, shape or form felt the ‘idiot vigor’ of youth looking back? The sentiment is incredibly relatable, human and honest.
Williams then returns the favor in the next stanza. This time the ‘you’ is being chopped and slashed. The effect imbues of a lovers connection throughout a lifetime of memories, unable to run away from each other. For as Williams asks: “When I snatch at one of your moments, and clutch it, / a pebble, a planet, isn’t it wearing away in my hand as though I, / not you, were the ocean of acid, the corrosive in which I dissolve” (89)? Only Williams could come up with such a question and place it perfectly in a poem. It is one of his signature techniques. This question leads to the final stanza which brings the poem home thematically. The imperative theme of “Wait” strikes a poignant balance in the final two lines: “when all she hears from her speech-creatures is “Wait!”? / We whose anguished wish is that our last word not be “Wait” (89). Thus no one likes to wait and duly no one wants their loved one to fade away with this word; yet at the same time we want to catch our beloved by waiting in the moment of consciousness. Instead of running off to war with the world Williams asks us to wait in a suspended conversation so we can see all that we have been missing between ourselves.
Given all this conscious humanness, Williams enables his voice to opine politically and thematically on government and money. Notably the poems entitled “Government” and “Money” impale both pages of the open book like pillars aligned in Williams’ own political congress. To this end the use of titles serves an aesthetic reason. Just as the voice and stylized syntax of Williams’ verse cannot be torn apart, neither can the titles at the heads of the poems themselves.
Inasmuch as Williams exceeds in his reading of the greats he also can dish out just as much information. In his poem, “Foundation,” Williams returns to his beginnings to find himself cough amongst “a spew of intellectual dust” (116). An interesting possible conceit or parallel strikes this writer while reading this poem, especially considering Williams’ tendency towards a political slant: the fractured wreckage of the foundation – the building which “has been razed” and which the narrator skips and hops “two-footedly (over) leaping across the blocks, bricks, / slabs of concrete, plaster and unnameable junk…” could this be the wreckage of the twin towers as well? “This shattered I beam is the Bible, / and this chunk of mortar? Plato, the mortar of the mind” (116). It is very interesting to draw this parallel and from this foundation one can sweep to far reaching political theory. As Adrienne Rich asserts, one must dive into the wreck. Williams dives yet “through the rubble of everything” he concludes thus:
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… (117)
Clearly, the turn of this poem hits with the adverbial participial phrase beginning with ‘when.’ Theorizing may be the foundation but the poetry comes in the music of language which only original poetry can best create and recreate. This written a solid intellectual foundation never seems to hurt.
On this note, “The Glance” captures a focused sensory transaction such as the title implies. Through a pattern of interwoven alliteration the poem unravels: “regard, response / without recognition // then, the desire to / parse, scan, solve” (52). The two-lined stanzas mirror a back and forth between two people, a double regard. The words then move to more ‘S’ sounds and intricate assonance:
This sensitive bit
Of cosmos that streams
Towards us, like filing
To magnet, then shyness,
Timidity, then, sometimes,
A fear, a rankling,
Even, absurdly… (52)
All the ‘S’ sounds slush towards the solid abstract noun ‘timidity’ which is of course littered with vowels. Williams then directs us back to ‘S’ sounds, ringing out a slant-rhyme with the adverb ‘absurdly.’ This parsed treatment banks on the effect that words have to work out sounds which in turn connect to other sounds such as:
this singular, in its
… … …
Or quandary, sundered
Or squandered reflection,… (53).
It is as though Williams plays with words, trying them out, working out versions of what he wants to say before actually saying it. This writing process reminds this writer of Herman Melville’s proclaimed process of’ romancing,’ or working out versions of the Self. Alas, Williams like Melville is a writer and writers write. We write to discover. We write for the process. We write for a glance in time.
Hence Williams want to get down to the essence of human nature. The voice is an inquisitive and restless one. “Brain” exemplifies this voice in that it is written in these long, syntactically complex sentences that quirk with an irrepressible voice. Such sentences map the very brain of the poet as he ponders insufferable on deep philosophical notions and introspective riffs. The long sentences and questions leak over conversationally to the next line which is quintessential of Williams’ quirky contemplative voice. Albeit, his lines are often too long for the page; the fact that they are so long says something for a poetic vernacular that will never be quite satisfied. Williams must push the line to the end of this thought, staggered with commas and often ending with a question mark.
In “Cassandra, Iraq,” Williams attempt to answer his own questions, having a dialectical with himself even:
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.
We’d twitter, as she did, like birds; we’d warble, we’d trill.
But what would it be really, to twitter, to warble, to trill?
Is it ee-ee-ee, like having a child? Is it uh-uh-uh, like a wound?
Or is it inside, like a blow, silent to everyone but yourself? (42)
Here Williams cuts to the inner core of the human condition. Through this tactic of breaking down words to their very essences of sounds, the pangs of language inflict in us the pain of a real tale. The simile of being like birds thus distills to its finest poetical value within these lines and within the context of the poem.