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Thursday, November 4, 2010

C. K. Williams, heir to Whitman, ponders prayer

Even though he turns seventy-four today, C. K. Williams continues avidly to ply his craft, writing new poems and inspiring listeners with his readings. In October the online-only The Manchester Review published “Writers Writing Dying” and Jonathan Timbers just blogged about the impact of a recent Williams reading.

Charles Simic once described Williams as “a poet of rundown neighborhoods, greasy spoons, gas stations, semi-abandoned children, Vietnam veterans in wheelchairs, miserable women married to unhappy men.” Anne Sexton called him “the Fellini of the written word.” Repair (1999) won the Pulitzer Prize and The Singing (2003) the National Book Award.

Williams is best known for his long line, so long it frequently runs past the margin of the page. Reviewing With Ignorance in 1977, James Atlas commented: “The lines are so long that the book had to be published in a wide-page format, like an art catalogue.” Yet this expansive line suits Williams’s penchant for philosophical investigations and qualifications.

Harold Bloom selected “The Vessel” from Williams’s 1992 collection A Dream of Mind for inclusion in American Religious Poems, an anthology that identifies Walt Whitman as “our prime shaman of the American Religion.” In “On Whitman: Mortality,” Williams affirms the importance of Whitman in the tradition of spirituality: 
... when I give myself over to Leaves of Grass, I come marvelously close to having something like an intuition of deathlessness, an experience that blossoms out of the fusion of that primitive instinct to go on forever, with the poetic force of the matter of Whitman’s song.
In “The Vessel” Williams explores and questions the meaning of prayer even as he tries to pray:
I’m trying to pray; one of the voices of my mind says, “God,
     please help me to do this,”
but another voice intervenes: “How conceive God’s interest
     would be to help you believe?”
Commenting on the inspiration for “The Vessel” in Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections, Williams wrote:
But then comes this other thing, this prayer-thing, which seems in some absurd way to have nothing to do with anything else, but still brought with it moments, though I think perhaps they’re all over now, when I would long towards the god I knew had to hover out beyond questions of theodicy, beyond issues of theology: I called on him to resolve that bleak, obsessive question the yes-no mind of the mortal has to ask because we can never have a yes without a perhaps or a no; the question of why existence at all, and if so, why then the twice why of the nonexistence of being dead?
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom; Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose

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