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The Poet as WITNESS : Molding the Political, the Metaphysical and the Erotic, C.K. Williams Is the Voice of a New Era.

March 07, 1993|Allan M. Jalon | Allan M. Jalon lives in Los Angeles. His work, including fiction and essays, has appeared in such publications as Manoa and the Southwest Review.

IT'S THE MORNING AFTER BILL CLINTON'S ELECTION. IT'S ALSO THE 56TH BIRTHDAY OF POET C. K. Williams, arguably American poetry's leading voice for this new Clinton age. * He's spent some dismaying post-election birthdays these past 12 years, being a liberal Democrat. But this one is a great relief. "It would have been terribly painful," he says softly, "if there had been another four years of Bush. Very painful. It would have plunged me into one of the worst political depressions of my life." * Some people might be surprised to find a poet taking politics so personally. But Williams defines his calling as that of a witness, aiming his work at "exactly the relation between the most intimate self and the most public." And that's natural for a member of a poetic generation that found its voice in the late 1960s and has faced the complex challenge of bringing that era's intense social awareness into the future. * Williams is a deeply serious man, though outwardly easygoing. His poems speak with a kind of cultivated naturalness, holding up ordinary speech as an ideal form; and in this way, along with his attachment to writing about daily life, Williams embodies the distinctly Democratic tradition in American poetry that leads back through William Carlos Williams to Walt Whitman. In the words of the distinguished poet Stanley Kunitz, Williams became "the master of the long line. He's like Whitman in that he is a poet writing in a tradition that is close to prose who really tackles America." * Williams readily acknowledges this lineage of aspirations, and his place among the writers who see America as "a great laboratory of human experience." His work is at once political, metaphysical and erotic. It is increasingly influential in poetry circles for widening the psychological and storytelling dimension of the art--which also makes Williams controversial. Some say he pushes the storytelling too far, for a poet. But few deny his power to trap readers in attachments they may not want, in accessible language that one admirer describes as being "weirdly like hearing yourself think."* His poems testify to events in his own life, while aggressively reaching to explore his relationship to the lives of others:

After the argument--argument? battle, war, harrowing; you need shrieks, moans from the pit-- after that woman and I anyway stop raking each other with the meathooks we've become with each other, I fit my forehead into the smudge I've already sweated onto the window with a thousand other exhaustions and watch an old man having breakfast out of a pile of bags on my front step.

"He's always been a psychological poet as well as a poet responding to the character of a country at a given moment," says Edward Hirsch, a poet and critic who recently reviewed Williams' new book, "A Dream of Mind," favorably, and in depth, in the New Republic. "It's not poetry that tells you how to vote, but it is politically acute in how it tells you to be alive in a given time." * A sort of anxious groping toward the meaning of events has been at the heart of Williams' work, especially in the '70s and '80s. His earlier poems had a biting confidence, a distinctly '60s-ish moral outrage at wrongs that must be changed. In the 1970s, Williams reinvented his poetry from self-righteousness to self-awareness. Judgmental poems gave way to a more pliant, more openhanded in-gathering of American types, of pals and friends and lovers, of inner-city teen-agers with uncertain futures, Vietnam veterans struggling with day-to-day lives. * These days, the poet's faith in social change is tempered by his realism about how much change is possible. "I still think that poetry can change people morally," Williams says. "If I've been disillusioned, then it's about the depth of quick change--but not that change can be made. Some people might think that all we wanted in the '60s was to stop Vietnam, but that wasn't the case. The agenda was also to make a just society. It still is."

FOR SEVEN YEARS, CHARLES KENNETH WILLIAMS HAS LIVED IN PARIS, the latest of several stops that included Philadelphia, where he started his career, and Brooklyn. His wife is French. Though he is reluctant to put his life abroad in political terms, he once described life in America during the Reagan years as "anguishing." Still, he visits this country regularly, and now he sits across from me on the top floor of Greenwich Village brownstone belonging to one of his many writer friends in New York. It's mid-November, a cold wind is blowing. The poet is tall, his face long and sensitive. His generally rangy quality, and a loose, shaggy, gray-brown mass of hair, make me think of a very thin buffalo.

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