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C. K. Williams

By Robert Pinsky

I think I miss Charlie Williams pretty much every day, lately more than ever. He had a capacity for outrage but also for laughter, and for a kind of moral clarity that was not at all contaminated by self-righteousness. He knew how to make judgments without being self-righteous. And when I think about what I miss, I think it’s partly the laughter but also his voice, literally and in his writing. The phrase “giving voice” applies in a special way, I believe, in a supreme way to the art of C. K. Williams and to his personality.

“Giving voice”: by that expression I mean two qualities that I’ll call vocal range and vocal empathy. In range, Charlie’s poetic voice embraces and weighs a Whitmanian breadth of ideas, landscapes, aspirations, human history, and personal history. Meanness and aspiration. Horror and beauty. In empathy—vocal empathy—his attention to other voices, the voices of other people is unsentimental, generous, and tireless—a compassionate focus of imagination.

The poems devote their inquisitive, listening intelligence to the voices of great thinkers and of street people. Of poets and politicians. Human variety inspired him in all its polyphony. And it inspired him to his own unmistakable voice.

At a memorial occasion in Philadelphia, many American poets each read a different C. K. Williams poem. And in all of our different voices and manners and ways of reading aloud, the sound of C. K. Williams as a person and as an artist was immensely present. Here then is an example:


I was walking home down a hill near our house on a balmy afternoon
under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with
their burgeoning forth

When a young man turned in from a corner singing no it was more of
a cadenced shouting
Most of which I couldn’t catch I thought because the young man was
black speaking black

It didn’t matter I could tell he was making his song up which pleased
me he was nice-looking
Husky dressed in some style of big pants obviously full of himself
hence his lyrical flowing over

We went along in the same direction then he noticed me there almost
beside him and “Big”
He shouted-sang “Big” and I thought how droll to have my height
incorporated in his song

So I smiled but the face of the young man showed nothing he looked
in fact pointedly away
And his song changed “I’m not a nice person” he chanted “I’m not
I’m not a nice person”

No menace was meant I gathered no particular threat but he did want
to be certain I knew
That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord
between us I should forget it

That’s all nothing else happened his song became indecipherable to
me again he arrived
Where he was going a house where a girl in braids waited for him on
the porch that was all

No one saw no one heard all the unasked and unanswered questions
were left where they were
It occurred to me to sing back “I’m not a nice person either” but I
couldn’t come up with a tune

Besides I wouldn’t have meant it nor he have believed it both of us
knew just where we were
In the duet we composed the equation we made the conventions to
which we were condemned

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something
is watching and listening
Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though no one saw nor
heard no one was there

I think that not many movies or novels or works of nonfiction attain this poem’s candor and delicacy—the force and tact of this narrated encounter. The poem has a social, historical vision that recognizes both “the conventions to which we were condemned” and the ineffable mystery of any person, of any encounter between people, including these two particular people. That pronounced vision includes social details like “big pants” and natural details like pear blossoms “burgeoning forth.” The poem encompasses the psychological idea of someone lyrically “flowing over” and the metaphysical idea of “someone something is watching… though no one saw nor heard no one was there.” The abundance and severity of this vision, the intimate yet social perspective—that balance is attained by the unique, invaluable, American poetic voice of C. K. Williams.

A more literal “giving voice” and an ars poetica is in his great poem “My Mother’s Lips.” There Williams evokes how one person’s speech reflects—in a way, becomes—that of another person. He remembers how sometimes his mother “would move her lips as I was speaking so that she seemed to be saying under her breath the very words I was saying as I was saying them.” In imagination, it was as if before I said them. That poem ends with the young poet shouting “What I thought were poems” from a hotel window, into the lonely night of an endless city.

I’ll close with a third example of this vocal empathy, the final poem in Charlie’s last book Falling Ill. It is addressed to his beloved, Catherine Mauger.


I want to wish you goodbye but don’t dare
essential it is to wish you goodbye farewell
thank you acknowledge how you devised

a life for me I never imagined I’d have
but saying goodbye can seem a diminishing
a subtraction something that must never

be thought though it already has been
and will be again but never allowed to reach
the lips to pass into the realm of language

or come too clearly even into the mind
the mind so sadly vulnerable with its capacity
for contradicting itself yet there must be

a way to cry goodbye aloud to leave you
these inadequate thanks without resorting
to rending farewell oh dear heart farewell

With these few quotations I can only suggest to you the magnitude of an enduring treasure: the poetry of C. K. Williams.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 9, 2016.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters