‘Singing’ the body eclectic

By Lauren Otis

Published in the Trenton Times, February 15, 2004

It is a bucolic spring scene that any Princetonian would recognize: Walking home in the balmy air, from an errand perhaps, and passing under fragrant blossoming trees lining the street. Poet and Princeton resident Charles K. Williams was walking home on just such a day when he encountered a young black man rapping out loud to himself, “freestyling” as it is known, as they both walked along John Street in Princeton. Wiliams turned the encounter into a poem, “The Singing,” a rumination on cultural differences and the subtleties of racism which became the title poem of his 2003 collection, a boom which won the National Book Award for poetry in November.

Williams, who goes by C.K. Williams professionally, has long been heralded as a gifted poet with the small and circumscribed world of American poetry. Now his name is becoming a familiar one to the wider world, thanks to his recent award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for poetry he received in 2000 for his collection “Repair.”

Area residents will have a chance to experience Wiliams’ gift in person this week when he reads from “The Singing” at the Princeton Universidy Book Store Saturday as part of Princeton Alumni Day. (He will also appear with the other three National Book Award winners in a Thursday evening program sponsored by the Princeton Public Library.)

The awards are “richly merited, the only thing that surprises me is they didn’t come sooner,” says Edmund White, who directs the Princeton University creative writing program, for which Williams teaches poetry composition and translation.

“He’s a really great poet,” says White. “What is unusual about his work is he writes very long lines thate are sometimes threatening to turn into prose. What is also unusual is his work is completely comprehensible. You feel as if someone has grabbed you by the sleeve and is telling you something very urgent.”

“I feel very gratified to have won those things,” says Williams of his awards. He maintains the accolades have not altered his life however, a life which for nearly half a century has been largely devoted to crafting poetry. “My life is exactly the same as it was,” he says.

Every morning, when he is not teaching, Wiliams says he writes, “then in the afternoon I take time off and just sort of try to think about things.”

On a recent frigid winter afternoon Williams, 67, folds his lanky 6-foot-5-inch frame onto a sofa in the modest, art-filled Leigh Avenue home he shares with his wife, Catherine Mauger, an art jeweler. Despite nursing a cold and recovering from knee surgery, Williams settles back and patiently begins to describe his work and the forces that shaped him as a poet.

Wearing comfortable clothing, with his swept-back gray hair framing a craggy face and round glasses, and with his calm, authoritative voice, Williams appears every bit the intellectual man of words and ideas that he is.

A Princeton resident for nearly nine years, he lives part of the year in France, where his wife is from, and plainly finds his current existence a congenial one.

“The intellectual community in Princeton is limitless….there is always someone I’m meeting who I haven’t met before, you know, fascinating and brilliant. So I just love it here…I think that I sort of partake of Princeton almost more than live here, although certainly I do live here. This neighborhood, of course, is a very interesting old neighborhood that I am very attached to.”

Williams may wear his poetic accomplishments and the accolades he has received with ease now, but the fact that he even chose the difficult path of a poet, and ultimately succeeded, is still something of a mystery to him. “There was absolutely nothing really in my character that indicated that I should be a poet,” he says. “It just sort of arrived and it was very hard not to be suspicious myself, of what in heaven’s name I was doing.”

Williams was born in Newark in 1936, the oldest child of struggling Jewish parents. Although his father’s salesmanship would cary him to success in the business world and his family to middle-class comfort, they were still poor when Williams was young.

“I didn’t have much of an experience of privation as a kid although, I guess I knew we were poor,” Williams recalls. “I guess my consciousness of it came from my mother always being obsessed by it. No matter what happended, her point of reference were those years when we were poor and her fear was always that we would end up like that again…

“I think that she gave me a basic sense of insecurity about the world that I don’t thank her for although, she didn’t do it on purpose.”

The family moved to Philadelphia, and as their circumstances continued to improve, to the suburbs of Philadelphia. Williams went to the University of Pennsylvania and lived in the city until 1980. The urban landscape, particularly of Philadelphia, is readily apparent in much of his work, although rural images appear now with regularity too.

“For me, (Philadelphia) was at the same time reality and a laboratory. It was clearly where the things, the social matters that interested me, were happening. And so I basically wrote what I saw, or grounded my perceptions or my intuitions or my sentiments in what I saw,” Williams says.

It was at the end of his sophomore year at Penn that Williams realized he wanted to be a poet. Although Williams’ father provided financial support for many years, neither of his parents were particularly supportive of his efforts. Williams’ relationship with his parents, particularly with his domineering father, was a difficult one until the end of their lives.

He recounted those difficulties, and how he ultimately made peace with his parents, in a 2000 memoir titled “Misgivings: My mother, my father, myself.”

Williams draws on his relationship with his parents, as well as his own experience as a parent and grandparent in his poetry. Of the collection “The Singing” he says, “What pleases me most about it, is (its) range of theme and subject matter. How many different things the book talked about and deals with, how many different emotions and how many different perceptions.”

Asked about his poetic influences, Williams reels off a list of more than a dozen poets ranging back to Homer and Milton “who I was just reading again this morning,” through the English romantic poets, modernists such as T.S. Eliot, up to contemporaries such as Galway Kinnell and Czeslaw Milosz. He says he thinks more in terms of poems that have influenced him rather than individual poets and these poems number in the hundreds.

Williams has been politically and socially engaged since the 1960s Civil Rights era. Several poems included in “The Singing” deal with the events of Sept. 11 and the circumstances leading up to President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, a war which Williams strongly opposed.

Living part of the year in France, Williams is plainly in tune with the antiwar attitude that prevailed there. His antipathy for the current administration is evident.

“With our president, I think what most passionately concerns me these days is the shame-faced, shameless lying that goes on,” he says. “Essentially, anything is done and then it’s lied about, and the media mostly just somehow reports it without exposing it. It’s really becoming 1984ish.”

Religion and its role in cultural aggression is a theme Williams also is interested in, pointing out how religious misunderstanding and conflict have shaped the post-Sept. 11 world.

“There is no question that religion gives the human race meaning—most people of the human race meaning. I’m not a believer at all anymore, if I ever was. K jst mostly these days see the destructive part of it—the divisive part of it—how it divides the world up into us and them, and sets up various systems of antagonism that leads sooner or later to violence,” Williams says.

“It seems, most importantly, to be one of the ways the human race has of finding ways to fragment itself rather than to think of itself as this single sort of miraculous happening and existence that has to be cared for.”