J.D. Scrimgeour Remembers C.K. Williams

C.K. Williams

C.K. Williams

by J.D. Scrimgeour

When C.K. Williams, the singular American poet, died this past week, I was reminded of how often I have shared his work with my students, and I recalled when his work was first shared with me. When I was in graduate school in the late 1980s, afire with political righteousness and poetic bravado, Yusef Komunyakaa gave me Williams’ Poems, 1963-1983. His work spoke to my impulses and opened up possibilities. The long, rangy lines incorporated musing and description, and they were negotiated by a unique voice that fastened to the ear almost instantaneously. His work was talky, but not cavalier or flip. Driven. I felt that these were poems that had to be written, and, so, they needed to be read. I still feel that way.

Below is the opening to his poem, “Bob,” from that book. Revisiting it, I’m struck by the musical integrity of the lines, all approximately 11 beats, and the gorgeously long sentence that stretches across the last four lines: sinewy, conversational, patient. The pacing brings to mind the image of a snake winding toward its prey, waiting for the right moment to spring.

If you put in enough hours in bars, sooner or later you get to hear every imaginable kind of bullshit.
Every long time loser has a history to convince you he isn’t living at the end of his own leash
And every kid has some pimple on his psyche he’s trying to compensate for with an epic,
But the person with the most unlikely line I’d every heard—he told me he’d killed, more than a few times,
During the war, and then afterwards working for the mob in Philadelphia—I could never make up my mind about.

How can we not keep reading?

J.D. Scrimgeour has published two collections of poetry, The Last Miles and Territories, as well as Themes For English B: A Professor’s Education In and Out of Class, which won the AWP Award for Nonfiction. With musician Philip Swanson he formed the performance group, Confluence, and released a CD of poetry and music, Ogunquit & Other Works. He runs the Creative Writing program at Salem State University.