Misgivings

Williams’ Bio

Poem: The Dress

Corrections or additions?

Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 26, 2000. All rights reserved.

Nicole Plett on C.K. Williams

Email: Nicole Plett@princetoninfo.com

A glance at the headlines and you might call it a charmed

life. A poet and Princeton professor in his early 60s wins Pulitzer

Prize the same week that his memoir is launched by a top New York

publishing house.

But to probe between the covers of C.K. Williams’ family history is

to uncover a portrait of struggle and resistance — a portrait

so individual and yet so general it throws into relief the whole question

of what it means to become a poet.

In a nicely timed and perfectly geographically situated appearance,

Williams follows up the Pulitzer award announcements of April 13 with

a reading from his new prose work, "Misgivings: My Mother, My

Father, Myself" (published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on April

12), that takes place at Micawber Books, 114 Nassau Street, on Thursday,

April 27, at 6 p.m.

In an interview from his Princeton office last week where he has just

concluded teaching a small group of undergraduates, Williams seems

surprised to be talking about the brand new "Misgivings."

For almost a week now, it is the New Jersey native’s Pulitzer Prize-winning

volume of poems, "Repair," published in 1999, that is on everyone’s

mind.

Now in the limelight, "Repair" is Williams’ eighth book of

poems, a generous collection of almost 40 poems, spanning themes of

love, memory, urban life, and the natural world. Dedicated to his

first grandson, born in 1997, one of "Repair’s" poems, "Owen:

Seven Days," is a loving dialogue between the poet and the newborn

infant’s gaze. The collection also includes "The Dress," a

key memory poem that traverses much of the territory of "Misgivings"

— that is the author’s intensely felt bond with his now long-dead

mother and father.

Williams published his first book of poems, "Lies," in 1969.

He considers his poems "discursive," rooted in real moments

— sometimes the most prosaic moments — in the real world.

Described by critics as "a poetry of consciousness," his long

poetic lines that seem to border on prose expression were considered,

for many years, his signature style. Yet the structure of the newer

poems collected in "Repair" is quite various.

Twenty years after his debut between hard covers, Williams’ four earliest

volumes of poems: "Lies," "I Am the Bitter Name" (1972),

"With Ignorance" (1977), and "Tar" (1983), were collected

in the larger anthology, "Poems: 1963-1983," published in

1989. His other collections include "The Vigil" (1996), a

Pulitzer nominee, "A Dream of Mind" (1992), and "Flesh

and Blood" of 1987, which won the National Book Critics Circle

Award. "Repair" is also a National Book Award finalist. Williams’

other accolades include the 1999 American Academy of Arts and Letters

Award in Literature, and the PEN/Voelker Career Achievement in Poetry

Award in 1998.

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Misgivings

Although his publisher describes "Misgivings" as a memoir,

Williams’ spare, 170-page volume lies well beyond mainstream autobiography.

In a self-mocking confession that appears within, Williams describes

himself as "the solemnly self-important person I decided at some

point I should be." But his friends and colleagues consider him

mild-mannered and genial. As his Princeton colleague and poet Paul

Muldoon describes him, "He’s jovial, but he’s serious; he’s serious,

but he’s not solemn."

A soft-spoken man whose speech is suffused with a gentle humor, Williams

concurs in the idea that "Misgivings" was an enterprise without

a model. "The word `memoir’ in itself troubles me," he says.

"I prefer to call it an autobiographical meditation."

The most striking aspect of the book, perhaps, for a newcomer to Williams’

writing, is his tireless interest in scrutinizing his parents —

a process of backward looking that seems remarkably childlike for

a man in his 60s. Like an anxious young adult, he relentlessly prods

and pokes at his forebears as if to ask what made him who he is. Yet

he also lacks the young adult’s perennial illusion that he or she

can re-make themselves afresh, free from the taint of family baggage.

When Williams writes, "I imagine the three of us fused in a cosmic

entanglement," we come to understand that for this man, with such

a poet’s vocation, this is indeed the case. So we ask him if it is

part of the poet’s way to stay so closely wedded to childhood.

"It’s a been a tradition in poetry for about 200 years to hang

on to childhood," says Williams. "It began with Wordsworth

— who wrote that `the child is the father of the man’ — and

it has become part of the poet’s creed. To slight childhood or to

slight adolescence is to slight part of who you are at any given moment."

Reading Williams’ extraordinary, slender volume can be as wrenching

for reader as it must have been for the writer, for it ranges across

territory from the darkly comic to the hauntingly frightening. Think

Woody Allen’s "Annie Hall" flashbacks to the battleground

of his Brooklyn childhood; then think of a childhood moment when you

inadvertently intruded on an angry or intimate "closed door"

scene between your own parents — a scene so powerfully charged

that it burns in memory.

You may find yourself surprised, as I was, to find Williams’

seemingly self-centered meditation seeping into the musty recesses

of your own memory and experience — his ability to conjure a small

child’s panoramic view from the top of the see-saw; a particular,

improvised bedtime story; an unforeseen maternal rage.

The story’s opening is not so rare; the author’s announcement of the

death of a parent is a powerful device. But here, the opening words,

"My father dead, I come into the room where he lies and I say

aloud, immediately concerned that he might still be able to hear me,

What a war we had!" lead into an exploration of the question

of how this could be so. His mother outlived his father by 10 years.

His first words upon her death were: "I love you."

There is a sense in which Williams’ mother and father are most present

as two sentient corpses than as their vital selves. "Misgivings"

opens with two parallel passages that place the author beside the

corpses, first of his father, then, 10 years later, of his mother.

His investigation is provoked by the words he blurts out at these

most emotionally charged moments.

"The truth of it is that I started writing short fragments and

realized that they could be put together in a non-narrative way —

in other words, I was writing an anti-narrative. And as I was writing

it, it was almost that aspect that interested me as much as the content

of what I was writing," says Williams.

"Although I didn’t think of it that way at the time, it was composed

somewhat like a poem. Because when you’re writing a poem, the form

interests you as much as the content. The composition wasn’t narrative

either. The memories came with a logic that I didn’t quite understand.

Things came to me that I hadn’t thought of for a long, long time."

The writing of "Misgivings," Williams says, began "very

definitely in the fall of the year before last. I had just finished

the book of poems [`Repair’]. This was what I did next. The first

draft was written in just a month and a half — I thought for a

while I had a free ride. But of course it turned out that I continued

to revise for another year."

Williams says he can’t remember the sequence in which these episodic

memories were composed, nor how closely that sequence mirrors how

they appear in the finished book. "But I would say that they were

moved around enough so that you couldn’t say they came out in the

order they were written."

The writing process, Williams says, "was mostly exhilarating because

writing fast is exhilarating in itself. It wasn’t painful. But there

was an exhaustion that had to do with something like pain, to the

intensity of self-scrutiny."

"There were some memories that were too intimate or too charged

with feeling to include, or perhaps extraneous to the form of the

book. I really tried to get rid of anything extraneous to absolutely

anything but the central drama."

This "central drama," however, is no more or no less than

the story of a Jewish New Jersey family that, through hard work and

a measure of luck, rose to the middle class and raised three children,

one of whom became a noted American poet.

Williams says the term "memoir" mistakes his project because

it was never intended as his own story, but "the story of all

three of us." His vantage point is that of the eldest — and

for four years, only — child; in his final days, we learn, his

father confided in his firstborn son, "We were kids together,

you and I." And we know it to be true. Writes Williams: "I’m

aware that my father was an ordinary businessman, like thousands of

others, and my mother was a perfectly typical housewife of her time

and place, first in a meager financial situation, then quite well-off."

Williams was four-and-a-half years old when his brother was born.

His meditation takes almost as its reason for being the fierce bond

that he forged with mother and father during these earliest years

when he was unrivaled in the family group.

His brother and sister, with whom he says he maintains close ties,

hardly figure in "Misgivings," or in its searing scrutiny

of its relational triad: "My Mother, My Father, Myself." His

brother became a businessman like his father; his sister works as

an administrative judge.

Although neither Williams nor his brother equaled their father’s great

height of six-foot-seven, this attribute alone was a perennial source

of pride to his son Charles. In an amusing aside that reflects the

author’s deep-seated humor, he notices how, "it was always assumed

in our family, and for a long time I believed it, that being tall

was virtuous in itself; it wasn’t until I was well into middle age

that I realized how preposterous that conceit was."

Williams’ portrait of his father lurches between love and generosity

to insensitivity, harshness, and even animosity, perhaps brought on

by serious late-life depression. A highly-regarded member of his synagogue,

the father’s troubled family relationships seem to hinge on some kind

of private oath he took in middle age "never to say his was sorry."

To this his wife would respond, years later, with the devastating

observation that "you used to be such a nice man."

"You sell yourself, not what you’re selling: to all the

salesmen who ever worked for him, including for one dreadful, interminable

summer, me, my father promulgated that bit of advice," writes

Williams. His father was considered one of the best salesmen in the

country — and "was well aware of it." Before World War

II, he worked for a large corporation and became its star salesman.

Then, when the company took him off commission ("probably because

he’d started to make too much money"), he went out on his own.

Although there were any number of sales areas he could have chosen,

his father chose carbon paper. Why? "Because it was the most competitive

business [he] could think of." He gradually expanded from carbon

paper to form-printing to business machines, where, his father knew,

the real profit lay in the supplies the customers had to buy to use

them. At one point, his father decided "he might as well give

the machines away, so he did." But, when one such transaction

backfired, the experiment was not repeated.

Over the years, his father’s primary business remained in selling

office products and copy machines. He tried several times to go beyond

sales and into manufacturing, and did manufacture typewriter ribbons

and punch cards for keypunch machines at one time. But when he tried

to expand into manufacturing office machines himself, it ended badly

and he was only able to recover financially by selling out to a larger

company.

Contrasted with his father’s thriving existence in the world of businessmen

and employees, was Williams’ traditional stay-at-home mother. The

minutely observed portrait of his anxious mother and her long and

troubled marital relations lead to the author’s admission that: "I

have my mother’s tendency to brood on causes, her passion to find

reasons, and, though I don’t like having to say so, her need to lay

blame."

Writing of his mother’s quest for "a life of pleasure," supported

by the family’s steadily increasing income, he describes her as a

woman defined by pervasive fears, a woman who had difficultly making

decisions. When she did reach a decision "regret attacked her

not because she actually thought she might have made the wrong choice,

but because she worried that she hadn’t made the choice that would

have been better."

In a message that will resonate with many readers who are past middle

age, it is the rack and ruin of the physical beings of his aging parents,

the horrors and indignities of descent into terminal illness, that

casts a long shadow across this entire reminiscence. Heightening this

subject is the fact that Williams’ father met death impatiently, begging

his family to hasten the process along, which they did, with the help

of his hoarded prescriptions.

Many of these same subjects are addressed throughout Williams’ eight

volumes of poetry; but it’s somehow refreshing to watch a poet put

all his cards on the table. Sure enough, as we traverse these vivid,

impressionistic memories of mother and father, we learn about the

author and his restless desire to know more, to tease out explanations

for how things were and what their legacy might be, to dig down to

the very root of the sources of himself and, by extension, of his

reader.

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Williams’ Bio

Williams, whose given names are Charles Kenneth, was

born in Newark in 1936. Although his father kept his prosperous business

enterprises in Newark for many years, the family moved out to the

suburbs during Williams’ high school years.

Williams’ father’s and mother’s grandparents had emigrated from Poland

and Russia in the 19th century. His parents were both in their early

20s when he was born; it was the Depression and they were frighteningly

poor.

"When things did get better, my mother was always actively thankful

not to be poor anymore," writes Williams. While the family still

lived in the city, their son was given his heart’s desire, a horse,

which he boarded at a suburban stable.

Eventually, when he was 14, his family moved out to the suburbs. But

Williams remembers this as a time of particular tension in the household

that he describes as being held in "the clench of unuttered anger."

This was the time when, he supposes, his parents were in the process

of working out the emotional "truce" that characterized the

later years of their marriage. Adding to Williams’ sense of loneliness

was the fact that, by the time the family moved, the formerly beloved

horse had recently been sold.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Williams embarked on

his writing career during college. "At the end of my second year

of college, I wrote a poem and then I just kept writing," he says.

At first, he also wrote short stories and reviewed books and art shows

for a now defunct newspaper. "After that I decided quite consciously

that I was just going to do poetry, and to put all the ideas I might

otherwise have had into the poetry." He has taught at George Mason

and Columbia universities, among others. He returned to New Jersey

five years ago to join the teaching faculty of Princeton’s program

in creative writing.

And he was not always known, as he is now by many, as "C.K."

"My parents called me Charles until I was an adult; then I became

Charlie," he says. "But when I began publishing there were

a bunch of authors named Charles Williams. There was an English

Christian poet, now mostly forgotten, but famous at the time (Dorothy

Sayers was his protege). And there was an American detective novelist

by the same name."

Williams is married to Catherine Mauger, an art jeweler. His daughter,

Jessie Burns, works as a consultant in computer marketing and is the

mother of two sons, one age three and one age four weeks. His son,

Jed Mauger Williams, whose painting of a wilting bromeliad adorns

the book jacket of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Repair," is

an art student in Philadelphia. Williams and his wife live in Princeton

half the year, and live half the year in Paris.

In "Misgivings," some of the author’s most startling revelations

come late in the game. The scrupulous groundwork of the first 100

pages gradually gives way to unexpected statements such as, "I

was always a little puzzled about why I became a poet." Compounding

this lingering puzzlement is the equally late discovery that even

as his father supported him financially during the years after college,

when he was struggling to become a writer, both parents expressed

the general feeling that poetry was a waste of time. We’re getting

close to the end of the book before we learn that his mother was "disconsolate

about my becoming a poet."

"Well into my adult life she believed there was time for me to

take her doubts more seriously, to reconsider and start my professional

life over," he writes, triggering that familiar pang of regret

that haunts so many adult children.

And just as Williams’ "meditation" opened with a child-like

scrutiny of the parent, it ends on another childlike note. The author

imagines his parents after death and dreams of their reconciliation

— a token of their love for one another.

Of his mother he writes: "Someday I’ll thank her for how much

of herself she risked to have divided herself when she was so young,

so unprepared, so vulnerable, into the double creature she and I were

those first years, and the linked beings we always would be."

As the book closes, Williams has untangled the question of those phrases

he blurted at the bedsides of his dead parents, telling us that each,

in its own way, was his declaration "of attachment and allegiance."

With a firm and lovely stroke of closure, Williams ends his narrative

with these words: "I watch them both, my mother and father, I

watch myself watching, then I go."

C.K. Williams, Micawber Books, 114 Nassau Street,

609-921-8454. The poet reads from and signs "Misgivings: My Mother,

My Father, Myself." Thursday, April 27, 6 p.m.

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Poem: The Dress

In those days, those days which exist for me only as the

most elusive memory now,

when often the first sound you’d hear in the morning would be a storm

of birdsong,

then the soft clop of the hooves of the horse hauling a milk wagon

down your block

and the last sound at night as likely as not would be your

father pulling up in his car,

Having worked late again, always late, and going heavily down to the

cellar, to the furnace,

to shake out the ashes and damp the draft before he came upstairs

to fall into bed;

in those long-ago days, women, my mother, my friends’ mothers,

our neighbors,

all the women I knew, wore, often much of the day, what were called

"housedresses,"

cheap, printed, pulpy, seemingly purposefully shapeless light cotton

shifts,

that you wore over your nightgown, and, when you had to

go to look for a child,

hang wash on the line, or run down to the grocery store on the corner,

under a coat,

the twisted hem of the nightgown, always lank and yellowed, dangling

beneath.

An excerpt from "The Dress" by C.K. Williams, from his

book "Repair," published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.


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