C K Williams

Image by Bruce Davidson

C. K. Williams

b. 1939 d. 2015

C. K. Williams is a wonderful poet, in the authentic American tradition of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, who tells us on every pagewhat it means to be alive in our time. - Stanley Kunitz

About C. K. Williams

C. K. Williams (b. 1939) was particularly well-known for his formal innovations, the long-lined poems of clause-rich syntax which became his trademark. Born in Newark, New Jersey, Williams described how he came comparatively late to the writing of poetry, though he was encouraged by his father from an early age to read poems and learn them by heart. It was in penning a love poem at the age of nineteen that Williams discovered a sense of vocation and from that moment on "knew that that was what I was going to do". His first collection, Lies (1969) was politically engaged and passionate, but it wasn't until his third book, With Ignorance (1977), that Williams' mature style was established. The long flexible lines recall Whitman, Ginsberg and the Psalms, but Williams makes of them something entirely his own. By this point Williams was a father, with a daughter from an early marriage and a son by his second wife, Catherine Mauger, whom he married in 1975. Children, marriage and the ties of family were early themes in his work and continued to be significant. The stylistic breakthrough of With Ignorance developed in subsequent collections such as Tar (1983) and Flesh and Blood (1987). His reputation grew throughout this period and his work attracted numerous accolades and awards including the National Book Award for The Singing (2003) and the Pulitzer Prize for Repair (1999). Williams also published translations alongside his own poetry, including work by Francis Ponge and Adam Zagajewski as well as classical writers like Euripides and Sophocles. Among his many honours were an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lila-Wallace Reader's Digest Award and the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. Williams taught in the creative writing programme at Princetown University and divided his time between the United States and Paris.

The capacious flexibility of the Williams' long line, with its constant qualifications and modifications, allows him to track in detail the complex nature of our experience. Never content with a first thought or reaction, Williams probes to get at our deeper motivations. In doing so he makes room for the minutiae of the world; his poems are rich in detail and everyday perceptions that challenge our notions of lyric poetry. This inclusiveness extends to the human subjects of his poems which frequently feature those at the margins of society. He examines the lives of the neglected and vulnerable, the misfits, war veterans and lovers he comes across, with compassion but without succumbing to easy consolations. In their combination of prosiness and sudden flights of high diction, the art of his poems asks questions about the possibility of beauty in a disfigured world. Williams experimented with other forms including shorter lines, but this tension continued to inform his work, what The Herald Tribune has described as "his bracing scepticism about the claims of art matched to a tangible ambition to make art that matters."

The poems in this selection explore how difficult true connection is in our lives. So in 'The Singing' Williams and the black man whose song he listens to admiringly, cannot overcome the gap society drives between them, despite Williams' desire to do so. The variety of tones in the poem, from comically rueful to exalted, enact that gap, the desire for human communion the poem both acknowledges and denies. In 'Light' the lack of unity is between the human and animal worlds, the poet and the mysterious life of the bats his torch briefly illuminates. In 'The Gaffe' it's the narrator's conscience that takes centre stage as he recalls a socially unacceptable remark he made as a child that still haunts him. Although he wishes he'd never asked the question, it's precisely his willingness to bring such moments to light that gives his poetry its edge. Williams said "the most interesting thing about a poem is that it doesn't exist until it has its music..." The complexities of his syntax are balanced by an ear for the rhythms of speech as demonstrated in Williams' reading here. His perfectly controlled interpretation allows the listener to follow the subtle thread of his thought as it unfolds, and to negotiate those exhilarating and risky lists of adjectives which give his poems such an immediately recognisable sound, like the bats of 'Light' with their: "cacophonous, keen, insistent, incessant squeakings and squealings".

His reading was made on 16 May 2007 in New York.

Additional material and useful links

C K Williams' poetry of youth and age

C K Williams reading poems on youth and age on TED.


Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself (memoir),...

Poetry and Consciousness, University of Michigan Press,...


Selected Poems of Francis Ponge (Translator with John...

Adam Zagajewski, Canvas (Translator with Renata...

Euripides, Bacchae (Translator), Farrar, Straus, 1990

Sophocles, Women of Trachis (Translator with Gregory...

Collected Poems, 1963-2006, Farrar, Straus and Bloodaxe...


The Singing, Farrar, Straus, 2003

Love about Love, Ausable Press, 2001


2003 National Book Award, The Singing

Prize website

2000 Pulitzer Prize, Repair

Prize website

2000 Los Angeles Time Book Award, Repair

Prize website

1987 National Book Critics Circle Award, Flesh and Blood

Prize website

2005 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

Prize website

1999 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award

Prize website

1998 PEN/Voelcker Career Achievement Award

Prize website

1992 Lila Wallace/ Reader's Digest Writers' Awards

Prize website

1974 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship

Prize website

1985, 1993 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships

Prize website

2003 American Academy of Arts and Letters Fellow

Prize website