By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, December 10, 2006
The blurbs that publishers print hopefully on book jackets call to mind Samuel Johnson's observation that when writing an epitaph, "A man is not under oath." Some categories of writing aspire to celebration more than information. But the jacket copy on C.K. Williams's new Collected Poems is accurate when it says, "Few poets leave behind them a body of work that is global in its ambition and achievement. C.K. Williams is one of them."
That is true, in both senses of "global" -- geographical range and thematic inclusiveness. Williams's poems have attended to the wars and political issues of his time, they have undertaken philosophical ideas (as in the long poem "A Dream of Mind"), and they have also taken up the traditional material of the lyric. Some readers may associate him with ferocious, boldly topical poems such as "Cassandra, Iraq" with its final phrase about both Cassandra's abductor and the current war: "in a gush of gore, in a net."
A somewhat earlier work, "Leaves" exemplifies ambition in another way: It's boldly universal. Williams has the daring and resourcefulness to make his subject human nature itself, more or less explicitly:
A pair of red leaves spinning on one another
in such wildly erratic patterns over a frozen field
it's hard to tell one from another and whether
if they were creatures they'd be in combat or courting
or just exalting in the tremendousness of their being.
Humans can be like that, capricious, aswirl,
not often enough in exalting, but courting, yes,
and combat; so often in combat, in rancor, in rage,
we rarely even remember what error or lie
set off this phase of our seeming to have to slaughter.
Not leaves then, which after all in their season
give themselves to the hammer of winter,
become sludge, become muck, become mulch,
while we, still seething, broiling, stay as we are,
vexation and violence, ax, atom, despair.
The all but casual nerviness of beginning a stanza "Humans can be like that" -- the tone of inward musing or intimate conversation -- earns its way with distinctive language such as "capricious, aswirl."
The vitality of these phrases sometimes traces back to little echoes or overtones in words, not necessarily conscious in writer or reader: "Capricious" may have a subliminal suggestion of Capricorn, that sexy goat, leaping like these leaves. "Tremendous" comes from the root of "trembling," so that "exalting in the tremendousness of their being" suggests vibration, as well as scale. And the repeated "exalting," which possibly looks as if it should be "exulting," suggests both the altitude of "exalting" and the acrobatic leaping (as in "saltimbanque" and "somersault," words that are cousins of "exulting").
The unresting turbulence of human life, its violence and eroticism commingled, makes the poet say, "Not leaves then"-- we are more endlessly disturbed than the leaves in the wind. Running through the poem, along with that despairing perception of pointlessness, is the counter-energy of meaning, animating the words themselves. The closing series, "vexation and violence, ax, atom, despair," has a voluble brilliance, a resourcefulness that does not exactly redeem the destruction it names, but challenges and tempers it with the act of definition. The importance and scope of that act justify the term "global."
(C.K. Williams's poems "Cassandra, Iraq" and "Leaves" can be found in his book "Collected Poems." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright 2006 by C.K. Williams.)