“Keep Dying! Keep Writing It Down!” C.K. Williams’ Final Poems Capture the Velocity of Death

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C.K. Williams, whose poetry of moral and political probity spread outward from unsparing introspection, died at his home in Hopewell, New Jersey on Sunday at the age of 78. Williams is survived by his wife Catherine, who told the New York Times that he died of multiple myeloma.

One of the most decorated writers of his era, Williams won virtually every major prize and honor in American poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Although his style is perhaps more varied than is often put forward by critics, he is remembered for his transition from short to longer lines, a metamorphosis he began in the 1970s, and one that he defended with recourse to what he no longer had to subtract from his poems. The move to longer lines returned him to Walt Whitman, whose garrulousness seemed to free Williams to find new intensities in his own career’s second half.

Many of the best poems from Williams’ later career are out today in the Selected Later Poems from FSG. The book collects the poet’s work from 1997 to 2015, years that brought him the Pulitzer (Repair, 1999) and the National Book Award (The Singing, 2003). And it reveals a poet plying the rhythmic variability that inheres in long lines to investigate masculinity, politics, and philosophy through what Williams called “the unhealable self.” But mostly these late poems are about death and the speed we gather approaching its horizon.

Death,” Williams wrote in 2012, is “crashingly boring as long as you’re able to think and write it.” The question Williams slyly puts to himself — a question lasting writers often put to themselves — is whether anyone can write death. And although the title of the poem and the collection it comes from, Writers Writing Dying, would seem to settle the debate, the problem is not so easily swept aside.

Dying, to begin with, isn’t the same as death, a fact that Williams approaches slantwise by italicizing the word in the poem’s opening line. Then, infectiously, Williams reanimates his enthusiasm, not for death, but for writing dying. “Such fun to wake up, though!” Williams confesses, “Such fun, too, if you don’t!” Still, his project remains the same:

Keep dying! Keep writing it down!

Yet Williams’ earlier negotiations of dying seem to have been prompted less by a race against death and more as a moral reaction against what he rightly predicted would be years of war. In 2003’s “Fear,” he writes:

Vermin, poison, atrocious death: what different resonance they have in our age of suicide as armament, anthrax, resurrected pox. Every other week brings new warnings, new false alarms; it’s hard to know how much to be afraid, or even how.

In the same collection, Williams veers away from the “flicker of the television news,” with its “politics of terror; war, threats of war, war without end,” reaching beyond solace and fear of dying by facing up to art. From “Self Portrait with Rembrandt Self-Portrait”:

My face inches from his, his inches from mine, whatever it is beyond dying and fear of dying, whatever it is beyond solace which remains solace eludes me, yet no longer eludes me.

The final section of the Selected Later Poems finds Williams in the throes of yet another stylistic turn, a late style that, far from doing away with the long line, exaggerates it to the point of breaking. The results are funny, strange, but above all uncompromising — something that can be seen even at the level of topicality. In “The Sun, the Saint, the Sot,” Williams crazily reflects on his appreciation of the sun — the “mighty unflincher” — before realizing that all Platonism and Eastern philosophy bakes in its light. In the end, he just wants to hang around a bit longer:

let us linger in your lethal warmth, don’t scant our meager spinnings in the great celestial waltz.

Elsewhere, in “The Prick” and “Soul of Steel,” Williams laments being shackled to his masculinity, or his “soul of steel screwed down in gestures of rage and reflexive revenge.” He wonders instead:

shouldn’t I be able to conceive of a yes unmale soul from this bundle of matter and pain with qualities that might seem feminine fragile but that would enlarge instead of diminish me?

The collection’s final poem, “Dear Reader,” is addressed not to death or dying but to the reader, whom the poet also refers to as “dearest inscrutable listener.” After thanking the reader for receiving his secrets, the speaker confesses, “there aren’t any mysteries I’d still care to conceal.” If it is the conclusion to Williams’ career, it is a fitting one: with nothing left to hide, the sharing is done. He kept dying, as he promised, until the end. And he kept writing it down.