Feature > Memoir
C.K. Williams

C.K. Williams

C.K. Williams is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently Wait: Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) and Collected Poems (2007). Among his many awards and honors are the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. Williams teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton University.

Carolyn Kizer

The poetry life can sometimes be a bit bleak, even dispiriting...I've avoided the word "depressing" but I can't put it off any longer; in fact, life by poetry can be depressing, to have to realize, for instance, for the nth time, that the audience for one's art is terribly sparse, that there's so little meaningful response to one's labors—and they are labors—and that so much even of that response can seem sometimes somehow terribly pinched. The truth is that most of the input one receives about one's work comes from other poets, and each of them has his or her own needs, own preoccupations, own ambitions. Despite the undeniable joys of composition, and of reading friends' poems and reflecting on them, you can end up feeling, frankly, quite alone in it all.

Not always, though, thank goodness, because there are those one comes to know who love poetry with such passion and such depth and such a true good heart that they're able to redeem, more than that, all the dark and fraught and lonely aspects of the poet's life. Carolyn Kizer was one of these, perhaps the most generous and, I use the word uncautiously, noble.

I'm hardly the first to characterize Carolyn as a "grande dame." She had an air, an attitude, an atmosphere of dimension, of having risen out of the trivialities of much of ordinary life. She also had an intellectual poise, a stature, and most importantly a constantly attentive patience that made her distinctly unordinary.

When I lived in Paris, and she would come to stay for awhile, I used to visit her quite often, and as soon as I came into her apartment, into her presence, there was a sense of something like ceremony unlike that I'd experienced anywhere else. She seemed always to have been waiting for me to arrive, or, more precisely, for the world of poetry to arrive with me, because so much of our conversation had to do with poetry, poets, anything that related to poetry or touched on it. It was like landing on a planet in which the very air was poetry, where the light was brightened by poetry, where thoughts of poetry, the marvelous existence of poetry, were the absolute constant in which everything else in the world found its proper setting.

And when I'd bring new poems to show her, or a book to offer her, she'd react with anticipation, and—this was gratifying beyond words—delight. She was known, of course, as an acute critic, and her suggestions and corrections were invariably keen and helpful, but it was more the fullness of her welcoming of the work, whatever state a poem might have been in, that was so heartening, so uplifting. And when she'd show me poems that she was working on, she was completely receptive to anything I might have to say about them—there'd be a exhilarating sense of collaboration, a sense of being wholeheartedly included in the enchanted realm of her poetry which was so crucial to her sense of herself, of her very existence.

I would never feel the need when I was with her to speak of poetry gloom, poetry doubts—with her exuberant attachment to poetry, such negatives seemed off the point. She wasn't a muse, she was Carolyn, hearty, funny, wise, but perhaps there should be some other mythic being to embody so much openheartedness, so much celebratory and inspiring dedication to the art, the after all dearest art.