Pianist Richard Goode and poet C. K. Williams are an obvious pairing once you start thinking about it. Goode is seriously interested in literature and has been called the poet of the keyboard. Williams considers music an essential part of his life and thinks of his poems in terms of what he calls their music.
Yet nothing happened until the light bulb went on for Marna Seltzer, director of Princeton University Concerts, about two years ago. With her intervention, Grammy-winning pianist Goode and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Williams met in Goode’s Manhattan apartment and spent close to a year developing a program of words and music. They share the results with the public on Sunday, March 9, at 3 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium of Alexander Hall. A 2 p.m. pre-concert discussion between Williams and Goode, moderated by Princeton professor of English Jeff Dolven, is free to ticket holders.
Williams and Goode perform alternately with Williams reading a poem followed by Goode’s playing of a piano composition that they decided was a good match for it. The program concludes with Williams reading publicly, for the first time, his new poem “Beethoven Invents the Species Again.” Goode follows by playing the composer’s formidable Sonata Op. 101.
“I never did anything like this before,” says Williams, an avowed seeker of novelty.
The poet credits Goode as the primary shaper of the program. “This is the way it worked,” he says. “Mostly, Richard read my poetry and picked out a bunch of poems to include. I changed some of them. He would play pieces [that he thought matched.] Mostly it came through him because he knew the poetry and the music.”
I am struck by Williams’ rhetoric: nothing fancy. Just direct, immediate communication without clutter. “Did you have any arguments?” I ask. “No,” Williams answers. “Discussions? “No.” “Ramifications?” “No.” “Just constant agreement?” “Yes.”
“Did you play for Richard?” I ask, having learned that Williams knows his way around the piano. Williams is shocked at the suggestion. “I wouldn’t do that,” he says, mindful of the gap in their proficiency at the piano. “And he never read poetry to me.”
Williams’ poems get their vitality from the energy of their cadence. He shuns fixed forms, inventing what he needs to power his vision. “I don’t write in forms — sonnets or sestinas,” he says. “I did when I was learning, but I don’t any more. I follow a stanza structure.”
What makes a poem? “You know one when you seen one.”
“The most important thing is the music of the poem,” Williams says. “You don’t have a poem until you have the music of the poem. Until then, you just have information, data.” Williams lapses into a meaningful pause between the words “information” and “data.” The silence, like a pregnant rest in music, gives the listener space to confront viscerally a change in direction.
“Most commonly, you start out with the music,” Williams says. “Then the information comes. When writing a poem you may start several times. Sometimes, it takes many goes at it, to see which works. It’s always a phrase. The final version always begins with a musical phrase. There is no poem without the beginning musical phrase. Some poets hear the music without the words. For me it’s a combination.”
Williams said, “Poetry is language that responds to artificial rhythmic necessities. Poetry happens in a part of the mind that shares our capacity for musical response with our intellect and emotions. You have to go looking inside yourself to begin to respond to it.”
Williams is convinced that poetry is for the ears, not only for the eyes. “Poetry is meant to be spoken aloud, even if you’re reading it to yourself,” he says. “If you’re not saying it aloud in your own voice as you read, you’re not reading it properly. Reciting your poetry to an audience is just saying it a little louder than you say it to yourself. Poetry is the most intimate of the arts; it’s the voice of one person’s mind and musicalized language speaking directly to the listening mind of someone else.”
“It matters how a poem looks on the page,” Williams says. “How it looks determines how it sounds.” Williams’ rewriting of a poem by the Japanese poet Issa makes the point.
“I don’t ever use the word ‘performer’ for myself,” Williams says, “but I suppose that when I’m reading poems to an audience, I’m performing.”
“I used to teach students how to read [publicly]. There really isn’t that much to say. It’s not terribly teachable. The teaching is in the writing. You teach students how to write. If they learn how to write, they learn how to read.”
Born in 1936, Williams was named Charles Kenneth. When he started publishing, the writing of three other Charles Williams was appearing in print. In order to distinguish himself from the others, he decided to publish as C. K. Williams. “And it stuck,” he says.
Williams grew up in the Newark, New Jersey, area, the oldest of three children. His father owned a company that dealt in office machines. His mother was a housewife.
“I took piano lessons as a kid, and then switched to classical guitar,” he says. “I still play classical piano badly.”
“I don’t know how I got into poetry,” Williams says. “When I was a kid, my father used to read poetry to me. He read me Longfellow and Whittier, poems he knew. They were the two he liked best. He encouraged me to memorize.”
“I didn’t think about it for a long time, until I decided to write poetry at 19, at the end of my required English courses [in college.] It was completely absurd — deciding on poetry as a career.” Williams attended Bucknell University and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
He has taught at just short of a dozen universities. Since 1995 he has guided Princeton students in poetry and in translation. He has translated from classical Greek, Polish, and French. “I taught translation for more than 15 years,” Williams says. “It’s a big part of my identity as a poet. Translation is a very complex activity. There are very few rules of thumb, if any.”
For half the year Williams lives in Hopewell with his wife Catherine Mauger, a jeweler. The couple lives the rest of the year in a small town in Normandy, France. He is fluent in French.
Pianist Richard Goode is known as one of the leading interpreters of classical and romantic music, praised for his emotional power, expressiveness, and transparent playing. He was born in 1943 in New York City. His father was a piano tuner and an amateur violinist.
Goode studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. While establishing himself early in his career as an outstanding performer of chamber music, he recorded such landmarks of solo piano literature as the complete Beethoven sonatas. He was one of the founders of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Goode’s Carnegie Hall solo debut came when he was 47 years old. Since then he has performed solo recitals and soloed with the world’s major orchestras.
As an exclusive Nonesuch artist, he has made more than two dozen recordings. His recording of the Brahms clarinet sonatas with Richard Stoltzman won him a Grammy.
Goode lives in New York City with his wife, violinist Marcia Weinfeld, and their library of some 5,000 books.
About the Goode-Williams performance Princeton’s Seltzer says, “New projects are always a risk. When we first committed to this one we had no idea how the collaboration would work. Even though we still won’t really know how it works until March 9, the best possible outcome has already occurred and that is that two great artists, both poets in their own right, have found each other and are creating something for us as a real partnership.”
C. K. Williams and Richard Goode, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, March 9, 3 p.m. $5 to $45. 609-258-9220 or www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org.
Pre-concert talk, moderated by Jeff Dolven, 2 p.m. Free for ticket holders.