The Poems Of C.K. Williams Eschew The Usual Format.
By Richard Siken
The Vigil, by C.K. Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Hardcover, $18.
YOU ARE READING a book review, so you think you know what to expect: beginning, middle, end. Some blah blah blah about a such-and-such that wastes no time in getting to the point. Perhaps you remember the chalkboard diagrams from your high school English class that rendered the ideal composition into two pyramids and three boxes: Intro-Body-Body-Body-Conclusion. Well, I'll do my best to follow the formula. Beginning. Middle. End. It makes a certain kind of logical sense. Beginning. Middle. End. This formula is, of course, what poetry struggles against, which is one of the many reasons poetry strikes so many people as foreign or difficult. Really, though, it's only a matter of how you get from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. How do you do it, then, the getting there?
Gertrude Stein would say beginning again and again is a good thing, but she was writing at the beginning of the century, and therefore, perhaps, she had a certain optimism. She would hang out with her buddy Picasso and they would sit around, trying to look at everything from as many sides as possible. They called it Cubism. This, though interesting, is not what C.K. Williams is doing in The Vigil. C.K. Williams is writing at the other end of the same century, and so, perhaps, he is battling a certain sense of pessimism. And battling it gracefully, I might add, wielding his mighty pen like a sword. Perhaps he's even winning. But what we can say for certain is that C.K. Williams is less concerned with the beginning and more concerned with the middle.
Beginning. Middle. End. And, of course, the size of the steps you take, the types of jumps you make, and how you play with the sense of time within a piece. Let's say that American poetry started with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. There was, of course, poetry in English before this, but let's say these two poets were the first to embrace the American landscape with language. Whitman used word after word, clause after clause, from comma to comma, his lines getting ever longer, in an attempt to stretch his celebration of America all across the American page. Dickinson, to the contrary, used the dash to stitch her meaning to--Eternity. All the parts are there, in both styles, the expansive and the compressed, but the method of traveling through them is very different; and it is the traveling I want to talk about, because it is the traveling that makes Williams' The Vigil such an impressive book.
Williams, like Walt Whitman, is an expansive poet who writes in very long lines. Perhaps people with "W" in their names develop a different relationship to language, a longer beat, a longer breath because "W" takes so long to say. Anyway, Williams writes in very long lines, which is not just a matter of how many words per line, but a question of where to breathe, how to move, do we move forward now or do we stay right here, stay here--here for just a while longer, until it's time to move along again. The effect of this way of traveling is, amazingly, devastating, because as the line stretches out, the end continues to remain just beyond your reach, and you are left with an eternal, timeless, suspended, unending, unavoidable, and undeniable middle.
You are probably thinking: Okay, but what is this book, The Vigil, actually about? Well, the beautiful thing about poetry is not what it is about but how it is about, but I will tell you what it is about anyway: It is about being alive in the face of other people not being alive. Well, of course, it is about some other, more specific things, but basically most poetry all boils down to love and death, which is why you should never take poetry and boil it down. You should take poetry as it is and go and read it. If you need something boiled down, let's boil down what I'm saying: The Vigil, by C. K. Williams, is a fine and wonderful book, and you should read it. This is his seventh volume of poetry. His many honors and awards include a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Trust me, he knows what he is doing.
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