C.K. Williams, an American poet renowned for his political fervor, ethical force, and signature long line, died Sunday at his home in Hopewell, New Jersey. He was 78.
Williams, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and the National Book Award in 2003, began his career crafting ardent protest poems against the Vietnam war and the alienation of urban American life. Later he took on other public catastrophes: the nuclear reactor explosion on Three Mile Island, famine in Uganda, the ravages of climate change. He dwelt bravely in the gap between our desire to be moral creatures and our strange paralysis in the face of doing the right thing. He wanted poetry to be big and to make things happen. “It felt to me as though anything that was on a large emotional scale, anything truly passionate, absorbing, or crucial, had been forsaken by poetry,” he once wrote in an essay for Poets.org. “What the poets of our time seemed to be left with were subtleties, hair-splittings, minute recordings of a delicate atmosphere.”
Williams’ characteristic wandering line—so long and loose that one of his books “had to be published in a wide-page format, like an art catalogue”—evoked Whitman, grandfather of the lettered populists. Prose-like and narrative, the line allowed for qualifications and reversals. Anne Sexton, who helped discover Williams, called him the Fellini of the written word.
He could be a surprisingly intimate writer, a love poet. According to the New York Times, Williams penned his first verse at the behest of his college girlfriend at the University of Pennsylvania. His wife Catherine appears by name in several poems, including a tender and marveling lyric called “Catherine’s Laughter.”
Her head thrown back
so far in her laughter at his laughter
he so solid, planted, oaky, firm, so resonantly factual
in the headiness of being craved so,
she almost wreathed upon him as they intertwine again,
that just to watch them is to feel again that hitching in the groin,
that filling of the heart,
the old, sore heart, the battered, foundered, faithful heart,
snorting again, stamping in its stall.
Some will remember Williams for “The Foundation,” a soaring, exultant poem in the March 23, 2009 issue of the New Yorker that briefly inflamed the literary world with its beauty. “The Foundation” contained Williams’ theory of art. “Poetry,” he said, “is why I 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 …
Others might quietly cherish “The Coffin Store,” which I first read as a sophomore in college. It’s the kind of standalone stanza that students love to whet their teeth on, full of both craft and mystery. It begins:
I was lugging my death from Kampala to Kraków.
Death, what a ridiculous load you can be,
like the world atremble on Atlas’s shoulders.
The speaker’s wife tries to save him:
Catherine came to me then, came to me then,
“Open your eyes, mon amour,” but death
had undone me, my knuckles were raw as an ape’s,
my mind slid like a sad-ankled skate, and no matter
what Catherine was saying, was sighing, was singing,
“Mon amour, mon amour,” the door stayed shut, oh, shut.
You’ll have to read the whole thing to find out what happens. I’ll say only that the tone is deceptive: matter-of-fact as the trees made bare and bonelike by the coffin builders, modest as the carved wooden door on the box’s lid. Who could think that such a bleak, claustrophobic set-up might give way to passionate love poetry? Who’d dare hope that death might permit Williams “the sky, one single bird, Catherine—just enough”?