C.K. Williams On Whitman/Reflections

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The books continue to pile up around here, and I remain a weak reading sister—too consumed with tying up corporate projects while trying to pierce the veil of a manuscript in progress, two things not best done at the same time.  Lousy excuses—selfish, self-involved—and it is time to sit up straight, to get on with things, to declare on this blog, at this time, that I thoroughly enjoyed my read of C.K. Williams' On Whitman.  It's a pocketbook-sized book done up in a symphony of greens.  Personal and provocative, exhorting and deliberate, a hint of the long, feral stride about it, On Whitman is Williams on Leaves of Grass—the great poet's take on the great poet's music and light.

On Whitman is declarative and sure footed.  It leaves the reader with a new kind of knowing.  "... there had been no poem in literature before him that had anything approaching the wildness of Whitman's language and structure," Williams writes.  And:  "Just reading it, the brilliance of the moments of inspiration are like raw synaptic explosions, like flashbulbs going off in the brain, in the mind:  pop, pop, pop."  And:  "... rather than using mind to alter reality, he finds ways to enlarge the underused senses of the mind, to fling the eyes and ears open wider, to make more sensitive the endings of the nerves."

On Whitman sounds every inch the C.K. Williams I once had the privilege of interviewing for a magazine story—alive, assertive, remarkably well illuminated.  Indeed, after finishing the book, I returned to the story I had written, to remind myself of that day's details.  I dwelt, for a moment, in the story's start.  I thought (and lately I have needed to be knocked about a bit with this thought), Kephart, You have lived a lucky life.  

Here is Mr. Williams, esteemed and estimable, on the day he invited me in.


On a street not far from Princeton University, in a place of Mexican storefronts and crowded-close stoops, of porches burdened like attics with so many nearly discarded things, C.K. Williams, one of the country’s greatest poets, makes his stateside home.  He’s taller than you expect him to be, though you’ve been warned.  Younger seeming than his photos make him, and gentle, extraordinarily gentle, in the way he invites you in.  He takes your coat.  He leads you through the immaculate downstairs rooms and back, into the kitchen, where his wife’s paper whites are still in bloom.  You confess that you haven’t been successful with late-stage paper whites yourself.  He forgives you for that and then you both take your chairs while the sun, through the window, heats the room.

It is always an invasion, asking a poet to explain.  It is a greedy act:  tell me more and tell me why, please tell me how.  But Williams, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his fourteenth book, Repair, who has been awarded as well with the National Book Critics Circle Award for Flesh and Blood, with Guggenheim and Lila Wallace fellowships, with two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and with numerous awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, is used to questions now.  He waits for them, his eyes watching you as you hunt for a way to begin this conversation.  You are aware of the redolence of the upright paperwhites.  Aware of the gleam in the house.

1 comments:

Lilian Nattel said...

"I thought (and lately I have needed to be knocked about a bit with this thought), Kephart, You have lived a lucky life."

That is a good thought, and it sounds like a good book.

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