I’ve been thinking of C. K. Williams’ poems recently, with their incredible formal inventions. The first book I read of his was With Ignorance, published in 1977. From its unusual shape to the poems inside, it was something new in the poetry universe. It’s almost square, not rectangular, and the poems inside use long lines that go all the way across that wide page, with the longest turning over to the next line, and indented to indicate that. The poems themselves are long, two, three, or four pages. But as soon as I started to read it was clear that that just as the lines weren’t prose, they also weren’t like any other long poetry lines I knew: Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s, for example. In Williams’ poems, sentence cadences were rich and audible. The scenes and characters were vivid. And yet it was poetry, not prose. It was like coming across a new plant species, or undiscovered butterfly. The first poem here is from that book.
The rest of the poems are from his book Flesh and Blood, published in 1987, which blew my mind once again. He’d published some other work in that decade, including translations, but nothing that prepared me for this book’s formal choices. The lines are still long, reaching across the page and often turning over. But the poems are shorter, with most printed two to a page. Given the frequent turnover lines, it took me a while to realize that each poem was just eight lines long–astonishing. He seemed to want to have his cake and eat it too: prose techniques in poetry; long lines kept from being meandering by the pressure of an eight-line limit. And then, there was yet another way he made the form he’d created more flexible. The book is divided into three sections. The first consists of single eight-line poems, two per page. The second includes poem sequences of varying lengths, one more turn of the screw: long lines–short poems–short poems turned into sequences: six on Reading, three on Suicide, ten on Love, seven on The Good Mother, six called Vehicle (as in tenor and vehicle). The final section of the book is an elegy in eighteen sections dedicated to Paul Zweig.
Because I can’t indent single lines without writing code, I’ve marked turnovers with an equals sign. I hope it’s more helpful than distracting.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Williams’ work, but I think there’s enough here to get you started. I’m looking forward to our Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.
from With Ignorance
C. K. Williams
When I was about eight, I once stabbed somebody, another kid, a little girl.
I’d been hanging around in front of the supermarket near our house
and when she walked by, I let her have it, right in the gap between her shirt and her shorts
with a piece of broken-off car antenna I used to carry around in my pocket.
It happened so fast I still don’t know how I did it: I was as shocked as she was
except she squealed and started yelling as though I’d plunged a knife in her
and everybody in the neighborhood gathered around us, then they called the cops,
then the girl’s mother came running out of the store saying “What happened? What
and the girl screamed, “He stabbed me!” and I screamed back, “I did not!” and she said did too
and me I didn’t and we were both crying hysterically by that time.
Somebody pulled her shirt up and it was just a scratch but we went on and on
and the mother, standing between us, seemed to be absolutely terrified.
I still remember how she watched first one of us and then the other with a look of
You did too! I did not!—as though we were both strangers, as though it was some natural
she was beholding that was beyond any mode of comprehension so all she could do
was stare speechlessly at us, and then another expression came over her face,
one that I’d never seen before, that made me think she was going to cry herself
and sweep both of us, the girl and me, into her arms and hold us against her.
The police came just then, though, quieted everyone down, put the girl and the mother
into a squad-car to take to the hospital and me in another to take to jail
except they really only took me around the corner and let me go because the mother
=and daughter were black
and in those days you had to do something pretty terrible to get into trouble that way.
I don’t understand how we twist these things or how we get them straight again
but I relived that day I don’t know how many times before I realized I had it all wrong.
The boy wasn’t me at all, he was another kid: I was just there.
And it wasn’t the girl who was black, but him. The mother was real, though.
I really had thought she was going to embrace them both
and I had dreams about her for years afterwards: that I’d be being born again
and she’d be lifting me with that same wounded sorrow or she would suddenly appear out of
blotting out everything but a single, blazing wing of holiness.
Who knows the rest? I can still remember how it felt the old way.
How I make my little thrust, how she crushes us against her, how I turn and snarl
at the cold circle of faces around us because something’s torn in me,
some ancient cloak of terror we keep on ourselves because we’ll do anything,
anything, not to know how silently we knell in the mouth of death
and not to obliterate the forgiveness and the lies we offer one another and call innocence.
This is innocence. I touch her, we kiss.
And this. I’m here or not here. I can’t tell. I stab her. I stab her again. I still can’t.
from Flesh and Blood:
The boy had badly malformed legs, and there was a long, fresh surgical scar behind one
The father, frankly wealthy, quite young, very boardroom, very well-made, self-made,
had just taken the boy’s thin arm the way you would take the arm of an attractive woman,
with firmness, a flourish of affection; he was smiling directly down into the boy’s face
but it was evident that this much companionability between them wasn’t usual, that the
whatever else his relation to the boy consisted of, didn’t know that if you held him that way
you would overbalance him, which, when the boy’s crutches splayed and he went down,
must have informed his voice with such shrill petulance, such anguished accusation.
We fight for hours, through dinner, through the endless evening, who even knows now
what could be so dire to have to suffer so for, stuck in one another’s craws like fishbones,
the cadavers of our argument dissected, flayed, but we go on with it, to bed, and through
feigning sleep, hardly sleeping, so precisely never touching, back to back,
the blanket bridged across us for the wintry air to tunnel down, to keep us lifting, turning,
through the angry dark that holds us in its cup of pain, the aching dark, the weary dark,
then, toward dawn, I can’t help it, though justice I know won’t be served, I pull her to me,
and with such accurate, graceful deftness she rolls to me that we arrive embracing our
ALZHEIMER’S: THE WIFE
for Renée Mauger
She answers the bothersome telephone, takes the message, forgets the message, forgets who
One of their daughters, her husband guesses: the one with the dogs, the babies, the boy Jed?
Yes, perhaps, but how tell which, how tell anything when all the name tags have been lost or
when all the lonely flowers of sense and memory bloom and die now in adjacent bites of
Sometimes her own face will suddenly appear with terrifying inappropriateness before her
=in a mirror.
She knows that if she’s patient, its gaze will break, demurely, decorously, like a well-taught
it will turn from her as though it were embarrassed by the secrets of this awful hide-and-
If she forgets, though, and glances back again, it will still be in there, furtively watching,
ALZHEIMER’S: THE HUSBAND
for Jean Mauger
He’d been a clod, he knew, yes, always aiming toward his vision of the good life, always
=acting on it.
He knew he’d been unconscionably self-centered, had indulged himself with his undreamed-
=of good fortune,
but he also knew that the single-mindedness with which he’d attended to his passions,
=needs, and whims,
and which must have seemed to others the grossest sort of egotism, was also what was really
=at the base
of how how he’d almost offhandedly worked out the intuitions and moves which had
=brought him here,
and this wasn’t all that different: to spend his long anticipated retirement learning to cook,
clean house, dress her, even to apply her makeup, wasn’t any sort of secular saintliness–
that would be belittling–it was just the next necessity he saw himself as being called to.
READING: THE GYM
The bench he’s lying on isn’t nearly wide enough for the hefty bulk of his torso and
Shielding his eyes with his sheaf of scrawled-on yellow papers from the bare bulb
=over his head,
legs lifted in a dainty V, he looks about to tip, but catches himself with unconscious
Suddenly he rises–he’s still streaming from his session on the Nautilus and heavy bag–
goes into the shower, comes back, dries off with a gray, too-small towel and sits to
applying as he does an oily, evil-looking lotion from a dark brown bottle onto his legs
Next to his open locker, a ragged equipment bag, on top a paperback: The Ethical
=System of Hume.
The smell of wintergreen and steam-room steam; from the swimming pool echoes
=of children screaming.
READING: EARLY SORROW
The father has given his year-old son Le Monde to oplay with in his stroller and the baby
just what you’d expect: grabs it, holds it out in front of him, stares importantly at it,
makes emphatic and dramatic sounds of declamation, great pronouncements of
then tears it, pulls a page in half, pulls the half in quarters, shoves a hearty shred
=in his mouth–
a delicious editorial on unemployment and recession a tasty jeu de mots on govern-
He startles in amazement when his father takes the paper back from him: What in
Indignation, impotence, frustration, outrage, petulance, rebellion, realism, resignation.
Slumping back, disgusted…Hypocrite lecteur, semblable…Just wait, he’s muttering,
He’s the half-respectable wino who keeps to himself, camping with his bags on the steps
=of the Bourse.
She’s the neighborhood schizo, our nomad, our pretty post-teen princess gone to the grim
her appalling matted hair, vile hanging rags, the engrossing shadow plays she acts out to
Tonight, though, something takes her, she stops, waits, and smiling cunningly asks him
=for a smoke.
They both seem astonished, both their solitudes emerge, stiff-legged, blinking, from their
The air is charged with timid probings, promises, wants and lost wants, but suddenly she
she can’t do it, she goes, and he, with a stagy, blasé world-weariness leans back and watches,
like Orpheus watches as she raptly picks her way back to the silver path, back to the boiling
They were so exceptionally well got-up for an ordinary Sunday afternoon stop in at
she in a very chic deep black, he in a business suit, and they were so evidently just
=out of bed
but with very little to say to one another, much gazing off, elaborate lightings of her
she more proper than was to be believed, sipping with a flourished pinky at her
that it occurred to me I was finally seeing one of those intriguing Herald Tribune
a woman’s name, a number–for “escorts” or “companions,” but then I had to change my
she’d leaned toward him, deftly lifted a line of his thinning hair, and idly, with a mild pat,
had laid it back–not commiserating, really, just keeping record of the progress of the loss.
That moment when the high-wire walker suddenly begins to falter, wobble, sway, arms
that breathakingly rapid back-and-forth aligning-realigning of the displaced center of
weight thrown this way, no, too far; that way, no, too far again, until the movements
of compensation have their rhythms established so that there’s no way possibly to stop
that very moment, wheeling back and forth, back and forth, appeal, repeal, negation,
just before he lets it go and falls to deftly catch himself going by the wire, somersaulting up,
except for us it never ceases, testing moments of the mind-weight this way, back and back
no re-establishing of balance, no place to start again, just this, this force, this gravity and
The way, playing an instrument, when you botch a passage you have to stop before you can
=go on again–
there’s a chunk of time you have to wait through, an interval to let the false notes dissipate,
from consciousness, of course, and from the muscles, but it seems also from the room, the
the bad try has to leak off into eternity, the volumes of being scrubbed to let the true
So, having loved, and lost, lost everything, the other and the possibility of other and parts
=of the self,
the heart rushes toward forgetfulness, but never gets there, continuously attains the
the senses tensed, attending, the conductors of the mind alert, waiting for the waiting to
when will tedious normality begin again, the old calm silences recur, the creaking air
Great session today (Fri 2-17-2023) on these C.K. Williams poems. Per the Zoom discussion, other contemporary poets who use long lines include Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Diane Seuss’ recent book “frank: sonnets”. Also the poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.
On the subject of long lines, here’s a poem from my 2020 book “Erase | Endure” (Dutch Poet Press):
I wanted the sweep of them to enter my poems,
so I sought out supermarkets at 6pm, banks on Fridays:
that some length would seep into me
but not the waiting. Where else to look?
— jet contrails leaching out, spine of the Continental Divide,
single breath of a nylon line cast onto a blank stream,
hoping for fish. And at the edge of the continent
the waves, the waves: incoming, breaking, some of them
Thanks for these, Joel.