C. K. Williams didn’t write his first poem until the end of sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, after he had completed all the required courses for a degree in English. One of his earliest efforts was a poem written to impress a girlfriend. “It wasn’t really a love poem, more of a mishmash,” recalls Williams some 55 years later.
Described by poet Anne Sexton as “the Fellini of the written word,” Williams spent years toiling in relative obscurity. After graduating from Penn, he worked as a part-time psychotherapist for young adults and held jobs as a ghostwriter and an editor. But all the while, he was writing poems.
His first collection, Lies, was published in 1969. His 11th book of poems, Writers Writing Dying (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) came out last month. Along the way, Williams, who teaches at Princeton University, has received nearly every literary award, including a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, bestowed on a living U.S. poet whose lifetime accomplishments “warrant extraordinary recognition.”
Members of the BU community can hear Williams read from his latest collection tonight at the Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading at 7:30 p.m. at the Castle, followed by a reception and book signing. The semiannual event honors American poet Robert Lowell, who during his years at BU taught a number of influential poets, including Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
Frequently described as a moral poet, Williams has addressed the civil rights movement, war (Vietnam and Iraq), terrorism, and social injustice. Reviewing his Collected Poems in the Boston Globe, Peter Campion (GRS’00) wrote, “He writes from the borderland between private and public life.”
Williams is quick to refute labeling as an antiwar poet. “I’ve written or cried out a great deal about the utter stupidity of war,” he says, “but I wouldn’t want my definition as a poet to be determined by that. I’m a poet who sometimes writes poems against war.”
These days, he says, climate change “and the really evil political responses to it” are his primary concerns.
Williams’ poems are notable for stanzas with unusually long lines. Critics often remark on the prose-like quality of his poems, comparing his work with that of Walt Whitman. “To be compared to Whitman is the greatest flattery I can imagine, but I don’t really believe it’s a good comparison,” says Williams, who published a critical study of Whitman’s work in 2010.
He is now 76, and his latest poetry collection tackles themes of mortality. But many of the poems have a kind of sly humor about them. Tess Taylor, reviewing the book recently on National Public Radio, praised it as “a series of jaunty and surprisingly cheerful meditations about being mortal and about how being a reader can help us cope.”
“I’m not quite sure where the humor came from in facing the questions of mortality in the book,” Williams says. “Perhaps because I’ve thought so much about those issues that there wasn’t anything left to do about them but laugh. So I laughed.”
“C. K. Williams writes poems as vividly imagined as the best movies, but with the intimacy of the most candid, personal conversations,” says Robert Pinsky, a College of Arts & Science professor of English and three-time U.S. poet laureate. “With each book, he manages to challenge himself and surprise his readers, bringing his unmistakable, characteristic strengths to new terrain.”
In keeping with tradition, Williams will be joined at tonight’s reading by a graduate of BU’s Creative Writing Program. Poet, fiction writer, and translator Eleanor Goodman (GRS’03) will read from her book in progress, Habitation.
Goodman, who confesses to having “never managed to write a truly happy poem,” describes her work as elegiac. “I tend to write about experiences of loss—of people, places, loves, homes, dreams, selves,” she says. “I think of many of my poems as a sort of portraiture, often of people who have been displaced, physically, psychologically, or emotionally. I’m trying to pry open someone else’s experience of the world to see what’s on the other side.”
Recalling her years as a student in the Creative Writing Program, Goodman points to two pivotal incidents. The first was a conversation with Ha Jin (GRS’94), a College of Arts & Sciences professor of creative writing, shortly before graduation. Jin, winner of a National Book Award and two PEN/Faulkner Awards, listened patiently as she recounted her options for the future. She mentioned pursuing a PhD in either Chinese literature or music theory or possibly returning to China, where she’d been living when she was accepted into the BU program, to work as a translator. “My fallback was to be a wilderness guide,” she says. Jin listened patiently before quietly asking “But don’t you want to write?”
“It was like being dropped in an Adirondack lake in November,” recalls Goodman. “I’m forever grateful to him for setting me straight.”
The other memory involves a piece of advice from Pinsky. “He once told me something like, if a poem is knocking on your door, drop everything. Stop mowing the lawn, skip your dentist appointment, let dinner get cold. Really. Even if it annoys your spouse.”
“That,” says Goodman, “is the way I live my life, and I have to say, it’s wonderfully reassuring to know that all those cold dinners haven’t been in vain.”
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, featuring C. K. Williams and Eleanor Goodman (GRS’03), is tonight, Thursday, December 6, at 7:30 p.m. at the Castle, 225 Bay State Rd. The event is free and open to the public and will be followed by a book signing and reception.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading Series is funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
Watch a video of C. K. Williams reading from his poem “The Singing.”