by David Wojahn
from Tikkun:A Jewish and Interfaith Critique of Politics,Culture and Society, September/October 2010
Contemporary poets are preoccupied with many things, but no subject seems to engross them more than the problem of consciousness—how can writing capture the turbid eddying of sensation, attention, memory, anxiety, and the maddening white noise of experience that constitutes our thinking process in these times? Consciousness as we experience it at the present moment is generally not about focused thinking, not about what the mystical tradition calls mindfulness. It is instead about multitasking, something that neurologists insist the mind is not well suited for: hence, texting while driving is arguably more dangerous than smoking or consuming inordinate amounts of red meat. Yet if you are reading this now, you are more than likely to be doing so on the treadmill at the gym, where the screen on your control panel is beaming CNN with the sound turned down; maybe you're intermittently reading the crawl at the bottom of the screen, all the while listening to your iPod, and making note of what stations the other gym-goers are watching.
At least since the 1960s, American poets have sought to respond to conditions of this sort, and today's most honored and admired poet, John Ashbery, has gained his esteem in no small measure because early in his career he made his poetry into a model of our new mode of consciousness. His poems are a jittery hodgepodge of statement, narratives that end when they've scarcely begun, campy asides, and various other allusions to popular culture, with a diction that shifts from the high-falutin to the colloquial and back. The white noise of experience is in some respects his only subject, and he renders its cacophony quite brilliantly, though perhaps too faithfully. It is hard to read Ashbery in large doses; he reminds us that our minds are everywhere at once so incessantly that the poems often seem like highly polished odes to attention deficit disorder. And of course they exemplify why so many people who are not readers of poetry complain about its obtuseness—poetry, they are apt to tell you, is too self-involved, positively solipsistic. I happen to love Ashbery's poems, but they also unerringly typify such complaints.
I love the poetry of C.K. Williams much more than I do that of Ashbery, however. He too has made the problem of rendering contemporary consciousness his principle concern, but he addresses the matter through an approach quite different from Ashbery's and in a manner that the general reader is apt to find refreshingly accessible. Williams is also one of but a handful of living poets whose work will likely endure. This makes the publication of any new Williams book an event, and Wait, the eighteenth collection of his now storied career, is one of his best volumes.
Williams gives his poems their particular pungency by adding one simple yet vital element to the Ashberian project of making poetry a model of consciousness—an understanding that consciousness and perception, at least in our culture, are chronically afflicted by guilt and shame, those grimly persistent legacies of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Williams's poems are always acutely observant of the world in which he dwells, but more importantly they are relentlessly self-interrogating; his mode of autobiographical testimony eschews all the easy blandishments and smug certainties we have about what constitutes the self and its relationship to memory and to politics. And when he combines this stance with that long, capacious line that has become his signature—a line that can run to twenty or more syllables and yet never seem anything but taut and inevitable—he offers up a body of work that is like no other in American verse: it's rangy, ambitious, morally serious, and as accurate a representation of how consciousness works as anything we have seen in this country's poetry. And it knows the limits of the self as well as its majesty. Somewhere Jung says we can never know the self, we can only circumnavigate it. If that is true, then C.K. Williams is one of those voyagers who have been around the world innumerable times; and, although he is in his seventies now, Williams hasn't mellowed. Over and over, his poems brood upon their speakers' actions and choices, be they trivial events of the previous morning or transgressions that occurred decades in the past. The new collection offers a typical catalogue of such regrets, among them a gaffe made at a funeral the speaker attended in childhood, an awkward encounter with a woman over who gets a seat on the metro, and the speaker's remorse over his response to a girlfriend's backstreet abortion in the days before Roe v. Wade. Williams revisits his past with the sort of pedantic doggedness you see in the forensic scientists on Crime Scene Investigation shows, and for Williams, motives exist mainly to be questioned. True, sometimes this stance seems less one of valor than one of mere claustrophobic obsession, of a soul crying out for Xanax. Witness the opening of "Brain;' written in his characteristic long line:
I was traversing the maze of my brain: corridors, corners, strange,
narrow caverns, dead ends.
Then all at once my being like this in my brain, this sense of being
my brain, became unbearable to me.
But even in a somewhat problematic stanza such as this we hear something of the sonic qualities that make Williams unique. He has an unerring ability to take a long line that should seem prosy and invest it with considerable metrical interest. The trochees and caesuras enact anxiety in a way that most of us find uncomfortably familiar. Like Beckett, a figure who seems to have crucially influenced him, Williams feels called to remind us again and again of the conundrums and benumbing repetitions that form so much of human behavior, and he does so through a stylistic minimalism that is at the same time surprisingly supple. In one of Wait's most emblematic poems, the speaker encounters a wasp that has been "banging his head on the window for hours." Williams avoids making any trite connection between the wasp's plight and the human condition, largely through a highly controlled sort of free verse that recalls the strict form of the villanelle. The word ''hammer'' is repeated thirteen times in the sixteen-line poem, a risky gesture, surely, but Williams brings the poem off with panache.
Writers of a certain age, especially those who have found unique voices, invariably run the risk of self-imitation, and in his recent collections Williams has not been immune to this problem. But Wait is perhaps Williams's most stylistically varied book. Although the collection contains plenty of the long-lined Whitmanic efforts that are his signature mode, Williams also offers poems in short and quirkily enjambed lines, many of them written in deftly flowing free verse couplets and tercets. The new stylistic variety of the collection is accompanied by a much wider range of subject matter and approach than we are accustomed to seeing in a Williams collection. Williams has often tried his hand at a kind of protest poetry, but these attempts have tended to be heavy-handed. Not so the efforts in Wait. The venality and crassness of contemporary American culture—seen with the acuity of perspective that may come from Williams's decision to live for much of the year in France—is explored and condemned with some highly skillful invective, most notably in a long poem occasioned by the fortieth anniversary of the King assassination. And the administration of the younger Bush inspires some particularly pithy outrage. A poem called "Lies" ends with a condemnation worthy of Catullus:
The politics of relation, call it, or, more depressingly,
just politics: a president with features like a child,
so blankly guileful in his lying that one might half-believe
he half-believes himself, though not, never not, for long.
Longtime readers of Williams will also be surprised to encounter pieces that in a guarded but affecting way could be called love poems—not a genre this seethingly introspective poet has been especially known for. More importantly, the book contains a splendid series of elegies and homages to Williams's literary masters, among them Coleridge, the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, the Russian poet and Stalin victim Marina Tsvetaeva, and the Romanian-Jewish poet Paul Celan, whose "Death-Fugue" is perhaps the best known poem to emerge from the Holocaust. There's a tenderness in these poems that is new for Williams. Somehow, perhaps because of the longer perspectives that can come with age, he seems to be becoming a poet not only of consciousness but also of a far more oldfangled subject for poetry, empathy. In "Light," one of Wait's most majestic efforts, Williams evokes the Dante of the Paradiso, lamenting that heaven's "troop of the blissful blessed" is a company that we can never join. But then the speaker suddenly recalls a visit to a bat cave, where a single bat, "perfectly still among all the fitfully twitching others, / was looking straight at me, gazing solemnly." The poem does not end with a vision of paradise, but its conclusion is nothing less than visionary—breathtakingly so:
Tikkun:A Jewish and Interfaith Critique of Politics,Culture and Society
... and once more the bat, and I,
our lives at that moment together, our lives, our lives,
his with no vision of celestial splendor, no poem,
mine with no flight, no unblundering dash through the dark,
his without realizing it would, so soon, no longer exist,
mine having to know for us both that everything ends,
world, after-world, even their memory, steamed away
like the film of uncertain vapor of the last of the luscious rain.
Editor: Michael Lerner
Associate Editor: Peter Gabel
Managing Editor: David Belden