Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18
by Richard Howard
It was 20 years ago, having published two dark books already, whose titles--Lies; I Am the Bitter Name--suggest the extent of his negative impulses, that C. K. Williams devised what would henceforth become his characteristic form of utterance: lines so long that the page, whatever its width, cannot accommodate them, and they run on, the apparent enjambment for a moment suggesting that there might be a short line between each pair of long ones, but then the reader corrects such an over-artful misreading--the lines are just (or unjustly) too long to fit inside the page's width, too long to be scanned according to any recognizable measure (not even fourteeners), and the fact of such extremity in their disposition is analogous to what occurs in a widely practiced (and even perfected) mode of contemporary art, often called color-field painting, though earlier related work by Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman makes much the same thing happen: very large mono-pigmented canvases extend beyond a viewer's possibility of taking in the whole paint-covered plane, so that the "field" exceeds what can be seen from any one coign of vantage, becomes the visual ground itself, takes you in rather than inviting you to take it in.
Since 1977, C. K. Williams's measureless writing--which Edward Hirsch, in the best essay so far on this poet's work, calls his "flexible, rangy and capacious long lines" and which Robert Pinsky, in a fearless blurb, calls his "fearless inventions" (though it seems to me they fear a good deal in the way of proportion, variety and ease)--has entirely relied upon this manner for the expression of whatever it occurs to him he must say, whether it is just (again) experience, or everything, wherein the inclusive line might seem appropriate enough, or even some bright particular perception, or anything, wherein it might not. To its service Williams has brought the instrumental qualities of himself as moral and emotional resonator: what this may mean, for or against the poetry, and for or against Williams, readers must decide for themselves (as viewers must decide about those great colored planes). The lines have to array some of the most garish and clunky language assayed in recent poetry, and Williams seemingly does not shirk the onus of extending them:
It's true that at first he may have seemed at least a little of what she said he was--
His doing so may be due to his loyalty to his conception of the text and his sincerity as a maker, or to his mediocrity or lack of distinguished instinct as an artist--the risk of your decision is his. The clattering languor and the mock-Jamesian cadences employed here are little help, despite a situation with a certain rhetorical . . . potential.
One thing that continuous exposure to these formal decisions, or rather to this one formal device, makes evident: the line-as-field functions better for narrative and descriptive ends (wherein Williams manifests a genuine talent) than for philosophical or even intellectual purposes. Williams has a wonderful grasp (surely the right word) of how the senses make sense of things, and in the grip of a given story (as here from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book IX) he can produce something like the effect of a classical affabulation:
There was absolutely no reason after the centaur had pawed her and tried to mount her,
And there is also this poet's splendid capacity for rendering, for giving us the unwonted feel of a scene, as here in the first three endless propositions of "My Fly," which are not so much lines as a sort of trawling-apparatus:
One of those great, garishly emerald flies that always look freshly generated from fresh excrement
Oddly enough, Williams's contraption works for such accounting as well, though it raises an old neoclassical anxiety about what kind of verse might be suited to what kind of experience--ought there not to be some sort of change involved, some formal alteration according to the story told, the vision seen? One recalls the blessings of a certain insect brevity--e.g., Merrill's "The House Fly" (same number of words):
Come October, if I close my eyes,
But so vivid are Williams's successes with immediacy of sensation and of narration, so overwhelming his virtuosity, by now, in revving up his chosen, his imposed machine, that I am most of the time transfixed by his gift, grateful for the powers of a remarkable and ambitious poet who is
. . . trying to get it all in, hold the moments
It is when he trusts himself to thinking, and to the rhetoric of reason, that Williams's procrustean device serves him less well, for on such occasions the emphasis and the magniloquence turn to sentiment, as in "Thirst":
. . . how rich, I would think, is the lexicon of our self-absolving;
Not even Milton, it seems to me, could convince me of the afflatus of that fourth verse, for all its grandeur. I suppose the very fact that I must elicit such a master to suggest such a failure is an instance of C. K. Williams's success; certainly there are, throughout The Vigil, successes unshadowed by any such reservations as I have so uneasily registered--specifically in the sequence of eight shorter poems called "Symbols," which seem to me the finest writing this copious and enterprising poet has done; in these wonderful emblems or icons of the world-as-idea, Mr. Williams has for once tuned his "measure," as I hear it, to his "Guitar," as in the poem of that name:
. . . essential, elemental, like earth, fire, air, from which all beauty must be evolved.