Williams Charles Kenneth

(1936— ) More than any other postwar poet in the United States, C. K. Williams has frankly and relentlessly challenged the anguish in our living experience. Moreover Williams has explored human suffering without the seemingly rational comfort of a formal philosophical system, such as existentialism (as in the work of W D. snodgrass), without the vague consolation of faith or of a theological framework (as in the work of John berryman), and certainly without the emotional-aesthetic buffer of a strong sardonic sense in the service of wary dexterity (as in the work Sylvia plath). "I realized that there was actually other people in the world who were afflicted with the same sensibilities," he has written, " the same moral confusion and uncertainty and despair I was, and realized, too, that I'd have to find a way to somehow include evidence of that in my poems, that there wasn't any point in writing unless I did" (16).

Williams was raised in Newark, New Jersey. His first book was Lies (1969). He has received the Morton Dauwen Zabel Prize of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1989), the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award (1993), and in 2000, the Pulitzer Prize for his eighth collection, Repair. Williams is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Singing (2003) won the National Book Award.

His early poems, driven by anger, were short units of clipped meter. Those poems are sonorous, yet severe, lashing out against human indifference and duplicity. With Ignorance (1977) marked a stylistic and thematic departure, honed by a distinct, visibly recognizable form, stretching the lines of his verse from margin to margin, exploring the psyche with a vernacular, producing a dramatic, curious quality Critic Ray olson argues, "His poems are ruefully, wistfully written from the perspective of someone for whom living has become a matter of watching the ongoing project of life rather than being actively immersed in it. This would all be sentimental and mawkish if it weren't for Williams' erudition and that line, that lovely, musical line" (32). His subjects are love and death, secrets kept, pain unexpressed among intimates, social disorder, despair, and everyday epiphanies.

"Grief" (1997), a four-part, 51-line poem covering four full pages of Williams's lengthy 20-plus-syllable lines, approaches his mother's death: "Gone now, after the days of desperate, unconscious gasping, the reflexive staying alive." The details of her dying are the details of his pain. He wonderingly asks himself, "Is this grief?," upon realizing that he is not making a scene, crying, or wishing to follow her in death. Slow, marching lines move in passionate spirals, like the wailing of mourners at a funeral, and build to an ecstasy in which the poet's grief is microscopic in the cosmos demonstrating adjustments made subjectively to a universal world.


Olson, Ray, "The Vigil: Poems." Booklist (March 1997): 32. Williams, C. K. Poetry and Consciousness. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, (1998).

Gerald Schwartz

WILLIAMS, JONATHAN (1929- ) Jonathan Williams's poetry exposes the sublime in the marginalized. Believing that "'poems' are but the deified prosaic speech of plain men and women," Williams commonly depicts folk life and language ("Logodaedalist" [1971]). Williams spent time at Black Mountain College in the 1950s, and his work, its dynamic sense of movement and creative use of page space, can be thought of in the context of the black mountain school; nevertheless the distinctly independent Williams displays a unique, playful exuberance, and wry, eccentric humor. Central to Williams's practice is the notion, rooted in the objec-tivist school, of the poem as object and the poet as unencumbering mediator between the mind and reality. As founder and publisher of Jargon Society Press (see poetry presses), Williams has enabled many poets to gain a wider audience and influence succeeding generations.

Born in Asheville, North Carolina, Williams has traveled extensively, eventually making Highlands, North Carolina, his primary home. In 1961 Williams, an avid hiker, walked 1,457 miles along the Appalachian Trail—from Georgia to New York State. His first book was published in 1959. Williams was one of the original poets in the groundbreaking 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry (see poetry anthologies). In 1998 Williams was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

Williams's subject matter is bold and varied, ranging from southern Appalachian life to gay sexuality, classical music, and political satire. His highly experimental work—some of which may be characterized as concrete poetry (see visual poetry)—often incorporates found material as well as drawings and designs indicative of his talent and early training in the visual arts. Williams also invented "Meta-fours," a poetic form consisting of virtually unpunctuated, four-line poems with four words per line.

In Mahler (1964), a book of poems composed spontaneously to each movement of Gustav Mahler's 10 symphonies, Williams often explores the position of the imagination amidst the realities of earthly existence. The second movement of the poem, "Symphony No. 3, in D Minor," insists on nature's agency in the imaginative process, quoting the 19th-century British poet John Clare: "I found the poems in the fields / And only wrote them down." For Williams, nature is both subject matter and creator, inviting us to engage the world's infinite possibilities, as in the first movement of "Symphony No. 1, in D Major," in which "the sunshine sings / all things / open."

one of a series of poems documenting the words of southern Appalachian mountain people, "The Hermit Cackleberry Brown, on Human vanity" (1971) points out the arrogance of those who see themselves as "bettern / cowflop," when "they aint," a passage perhaps rendered ironic in its presentation of folk language as published poetry, yet revealing, through carefully enhanced line breaks, what Eric Mottram has called Williams's "uncondescending demonstration of commonality" (103). Williams's remarkable ear, sense of daring, and penchant for spontaneous inclusion produce a provocative, hardy, and moving body of work.


Bassett, John E. "Jonathan Williams." In Contemporary Poets, Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South, edited by Robert Bain and Joseph M. Flora. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 525-534. Mottram, Eric. "Jonathan Williams." Vort 4 (1973): 54-75.

Judith Schwartz

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