Collected Poems, C.K.Williams (682pp, £20.00, Bloodaxe)

This doorstep-sized volume collects ten volumes of Williams' work, from Lies, published in 1969, right up to the recent Bloodaxe volumes of The Vigil (1997), Repair (1999) and 2003's The Singing. Fans of his work, who picked up on the Pulitzer-Prize winning Repair and have followed him since may well want to invest in this for the comparatively obscure earlier collections, but may also be surprised at the relatively formal, unobtrusive nature of the first 100 pages or so.

Lies and the 1972 collection, I Am the Bitter Name are intriguing as apprentice –work, a theme Williams himself treats in 'She, Though', a long poem from A Dream of Mind: 'I'd have to reach some higher stage / before I'd have the right to even think that I was someone who could call himself a poet', he writes, then an epiphanic line from Rilke helps him on his way. To return to these earlier poems, they show him trying various themes and tonal strategies: unpunctuated political fragments, obscenity and sex, religious demands, death and violence ~ all are evident, but all would return much more convincingly handled in his later, mature work.

With Ignorance (1977), and then even more convincingly, in the 1983 collection Tar, Williams begins to wield his typical long-lined stanzas and an endearingly colloquial tone is handled much more powerfully. The title poem 'Tar', for instance, finds Williams observing the Three Mile Island nuclear alert from the domestic context of watching a gang of workmen re-roof his house: the tar itself is 'dark, Dantean broth', the struggling men 'like trolls' and behind them 'the heavy noontime air alive with shimmers and mirages' as the disaster unfolds. The warning delivered in the poem becomes more powerful when situated in the vivid everyday, and Williams is still able to deliver a final epiphany from the leftover chunks of tar: 'so black they seemed to suck the light out of the air. / By nightfall kids had come across them: every sidewalk on the block was scribbled with obscenities and hearts.'  Other poems in this collection, 'The Gas Station' and 'The Regulars' for example, inhabit the blue collar world of Raymond Carver, pulling no punches.

Having established his trademark long line, Williams produced, in
Flesh and Blood, a lot of comparatively short poems, each having eight lines. This was a change in his rhythms, but the following A Dream of Mind (1992) allowed him to stretch out and breathe in the long title sequence, probing forms of dreaming, and 'She, Though' an 11-page long meditation on becoming a poet, quoted from earlier. Smaller poems probe Freudian theories and sexual jealousy, and, from here on, the figure of Williams himself becomes far more central to his own poetic undertaking. Poems begin to  contain chips of biography, yet they avoid becoming wearyingly solipsistic (he complains of this in Plath), mostly due to his scrupulous honesty. A growing tenderness for the state of mankind, either singly or collectively, is also evident, in poems such as 'Harm', 'Scar' and 'When', often leavened with wry humour. This is one of Williams' strongest collections: it easily repays re-reading and sets the pattern for The Vigil and Repair his two succeeding collections of the late 1990s.

The last volume collected here,
The Singing, appeared in 2003. There are still long-lined meditations with titles like 'Gravel' and 'This Happened', but Williams has begun looking anew at more concise, shorter forms on the page. Repetition has also become more important to him, as in the superb painting poem 'Self-Portrait with Rembrandt Self-Portrait' where the phrases 'my face' and 'his' eventually lead to some partial self-knowledge: 'whatever it is beyond solace… no longer eludes me'. Williams is still typically concerned about the state of the world: poems entitled 'War' and 'Fear' explore this, while 'The Hearth' brings us the poet, crouching before a fire which 'barely keeps the room warm', aware of political posturings, death and mutilation elsewhere on the planet.

Williams is a major voice in American poetry, and he is politically aware in the non-aligned, humanitarian way poets always have been. His tenderness sometimes feels like Heaney's non-sectarian meditations on the depressingly recurring rituals of violence; at other times, his demotic, probing long line feels like a less demanding, more human Ashbery. This collection reveals the patterns of his development as a poet, and gives all four of his mature collections, from
A Dream of Mind onwards, a personal context. Forty pages of new poems, including a meditation on Iraq, bring the story right up to date: it is a compelling narrative, with many lessons to teach parochial English voices.  

       © M. C. Caseley 2006