C.K. Williams
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C.K. Williams

Past Event: Saturday, January 29, 2000

Charles Kenneth Williams was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of a salesman and a homemaker, during the middle of the Depression. His upbringing was the subject of his recent memoir Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself (2000)—a book that defies the conventions of the contemporary memoir. Williams explained, “I wanted to write an autobiographical meditation stripped of all but the absolute essentials, with no extraneous narrative details or information.”

Williams started writing poetry when he was 19, shortly after taking his last required English class at the University of Pennsylvania. “Poetry didn’t find me, in the cradle or anywhere near it: I found it,” he recalled. “I realized at some point—very late, it’s always seemed—that I needed it, that it served a function for me—or someday would—however unclear that function may have been at first.” Williams found his voice as a poet in the mid-sixties when writing to a magazine editor about the violence directed against civil rights activists. The process of writing this letter opened up a new way of thinking for Williams—a paradigm for writing all of his poetry. The result was “A Day for Anne Frank,” a meditation that linked the civil rights movement with the Holocaust and became the opening poem of his first collection, Lies(1969). “After the Anne Frank poem . . . I seemed to be able to write poems I wanted to write, in a way that satisfied me, that made the struggle with the matter and form and surface of the poems bearable, and, more to the point, purposeful,” wrote Williams.

Since then, Williams has emerged as one of America’s major poets, winning a National Book Critics Circle Award for Flesh and Blood (1987) and the Pulitzer Prize for Repair (1999). He is known for his long, sinuous lines and what one critic called his “novelistically urban” settings. He remains a “political poet,” in that he refuses to draw a simple line between public and private life: “His fearless inventions, with their rangeness of language and big long lines, quest after the entirety of life,” writes Robert Pinsky. Williams and his wife live half of the year in Princeton (where he teaches) and the other half in Paris, France.

C.K. Williams’s many honors include an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the PEN/Voelcker Career Achievement Award in poetry. His collection Flesh and Blood won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, as was The Vigil. In 1999 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Repair.

Selected WorkMisgivings (2000)Repair (1999)The Vigil (1997)With Ignorance (1997)Selected Poems of Francis Ponge, translation (1994)A Dream of Mind (1992)I Am the Bitter Name (1992)The Bacchae of Euripides (1990)Flesh and Blood (1987)Tar (1983)The Lark, The Thrush, and The Starling (Poems from Issa) (1983)Women of Trachis, by Sophocles (with Gregory Dickerson, 1978)Lies (1969)

LinksPoets.org web page for WilliamsBook review of The Vigil