Early in his 2003 collection The Singing, readers new to C.K. Williams might peg him as a poet for whom each phenomenon of the outside world is but the dock for a journey inward, each page a fresh ticket.
Hastening, the reader would add that this is fine: The opening poem, "The Doe," is for instance a compactly powerful rendering of the narrator's unnamed grief distilled through a brief encounter with a forest creature. "Bialystock, or Lvov," conjures the old-country past in "reeking barn-brewed vodka, cornhusk cigarettes that cloy like acrid incense," then comes to a focus upon the narrator's helpless ignorance of his own family's true past.
It's just that, despite Williams' own two-line quip "Narcissism" -- "it leaves the lips in such a sweetly murmuring hum" -- you start to feel the burden of introspection.
Quickly, however, The Singing opens up. The universal themes Williams at first seemed to examine solely through the lens of himself instead start emerging from personal experiences, journeying to me and you. The fleeting woe of a small grandson, "just pre-speech," foreshadows life's inevitable sorrows, and our opportunities to salve them. Existential questions follow in "Of Childhood The Dark." Williams writes, "Your truths will seek you, though you still must construct and comprehend them." Later in that poem, he even chides youthful navel-gazing: "Don't souls, rapt in themselves, ravish themselves? Wasn't I rapt? Wasn't I ravaged?"
Mercurial ways seem Williams' mode. Born in Newark, N.J., in 1936, he took up poetry at the age of 19, and was past 30 when he published his first collection. He became noted for the perhaps unprecedented length of his lines. Poet Robert Pinsky called them "fearless inventions," while critic Richard Howard, in a review of Williams' The Vigil, wrote that the lines "have to array some of the most garish and clunky language assayed in recent poetry."
But even Howard concludes his review by acknowledging the "overwhelming ... virtuosity" and "the powers of a remarkable and ambitious poet." The Pulitzer committee agreed, awarding the resident of Princeton, N.J., and Paris its prize for his 1999 collection Repair. The Singing won the National Book Award.
Williams' lines, meanwhile, aren't always so long any more. Many in The Singing are quite short, such as the five-syllable bursts in "Elegy for an Artist." Here Williams grapples with a dear friend's death through vivid memories of dawn rambles together -- "the night's breezes barely wanted, the foliage already motionless in the heat-scorched scrub" -- and a grief that's inconsolable "because my sadness still feels incomplete, and it's come to me I need you to help me grieve for you ..."