Homage to C. K. Williams

I am deeply saddened by the passing of a great poet, Charles Kenneth Williams, who always used his initials, C. K. before his last name.

At the 2008 Palm Beach Poetry Festival I was offered any poetry workshop I wanted to act as intern/assistant to a poet, due to seniority.  I was older than any of the other younger interns, I had four college degrees, one of them, an MFA in Creative Writing, and I had published a poetry collection.  I chose C.K. Williams, knowing his excellent work, and realizing the fantastic opportunity it afforded me to sit in his seminar for one week.

On January 21, 2008, I took notes from his lecture, made copies and passed them to all the fine poets in attendance. These notes follow below.

He was an instructor who pulled no punches, as I wrote on Facebook. He told you what he thought of the poem being critiqued, the musicality of the language, the word choice, whatever.  This was a professor, who did not suffer fools.  This was a teacher, who got up in the middle of one of our sessions and went next door to Claudia Emerson’s workshop, and asked her and her class to keep the noise and the laughter down to a dull roar—No, I don’t believe he said it quite that way, but when he returned to our classroom, the uproar from the class next to ours ceased.

He was a Princeton professor, who won major awards for his writing, and by his mere presence, made sure he received the respect due him.  It was a great honor and privilege, but also a pleasure to see genius in action. He has left a formidable legacy, one that I am personally grateful for.

After our workshop time together, on the last day, CK signed three of his books that I had with me: Flesh and Blood, C. K. Williams Selected Poems, and C. K. Williams Collected Poems (hard copy). The one that he didn’t sign was C.K. Williams Poems 1963-1983,  because apparently I’d left it home that day. Each book that he autographed was signed “for Nina,” and he wrote: “With warmth,” “Thanks for everything.  Best regards,” “With warmth again,” but in Flesh and Blood he wrote these precious words to me: “for Nina warmth for your poems.” I’d like to think that all the poems I’ve written since then, conveyed that very sentiment of warmth.

Having lived in Italy for twenty years, I was very familiar with the work of Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish poet/writer, and read his works repeatedly throughout the years starting in 1970.  Levi was a man who had been a member of the Italian anti-fascist resistance during the WWII, was arrested and survived the Holocaust, but then took his own life. It was beyond shocking to think that the author who wrote If This Be a Man, and endured the tortures of Hell in Auschwitz, could commit suicide. One day after reading some poetry of CK’s about Levi, we had a delightful one-on-one discussion after class. I am grateful for having had that incredible conversation, and cherish it along with the memory of my days with CK.

After the Poetry Festival, I drove him to the airport with Sharon Olds, another fine poet, and it tickled me to hear her call him, Charlie, but to me, he’ll always be CK.

RIP, CK

Notes about revising from C K Williams                                                                                                 1/21/08  PBPF

(Nina’s Notes—take or leave, but this is what I garnered and gleaned—if you heard it differently—go with it.)

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There is a kernel (an energetic spot) in each poem from which everything is variable and from which a poem can “re-grow” (into something new)

First of all in this seminar there will be no judgment (on work) these are experiments

Find the principles (which inform the work) and which will enable us to work with (the poem)

Find the principles and incorporate them (the unconscious principles)

Why did you write the poem? What was the impulse? The occasion?

What were the inspirations?

What seems to be inspired (in the work)? The magic?

Did you do justice to the inspiration and the impulse?

Variables

Music.

Who does the poem address? Why How? Is it a person?  A character?

What is the tone?—conversational, natural, artificial, poetical, formal, heightened?

Is the “self” in the poem? Is this important?  Represented enough to keep the reader reading on?

Poetical? Experiential? Is there expedience?  Metaphor? Simile?

These serve as a means of interest.  Is there plot?  A display of information?

Drama has climax—does the poem?  Where is it situated: the end or the beginning?

Syntax

Not always a narrative

Diction (language) colloquial?

Compression vs. discursive

Narrative vs. logic

Irrational (unconscious) vs. rational (conscious)

Is there commitment?

Use of metaphor (aha! the light!) and simile

Music—most difficult to speak about with regards to free verse.

(stress, pulse, cadence, repetition—symphonic melody repeats)