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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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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."
609-921-8454. The poet reads from and signs "Misgivings: My Mother,
My Father, Myself." Thursday, April 27, 6 p.m.
most elusive memory now,
down your block
and the last sound at night as likely as not would be your
father pulling up in his car,
cellar, to the furnace,
to fall into bed;
in those long-ago days, women, my mother, my friends’ mothers,
that you wore over your nightgown, and, when you had to
go to look for a child,
under a coat,
book "Repair," published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
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