- VOLUME 10
- MY LIBRARY
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The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization is a ten-volume series that collects more than 3,000 years of Jewish cultural artificats, texts, and paintings, selected by more than 120 internationally recognized scholars.
C. K. Williams
C. K. Williams, the celebrated poet, was for many years preoccupied with mortality. He edited a book, Writers Writing Dying, in 2012, when his own life was nearing its end. In fact, Williams’ thoughts had turned deathward years earlier. “When my mother dies, I'll say… I love you,” he wrote in a memoir of his parents. When Williams’ father died, the man received quite a different valediction from his son: “What a war we had!” Perhaps no book title ever captured an author’s—or a son’s—ambivalence better than the one Williams chose: Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself.
Indeed, ambivalence was a keynote of some of Williams’ best poetry. “I’m trying to pray,” he writes in the opening stanza of “The Vessel,” which was included in Volume 10 of the Posen Library and in the Posen Digital Library.
The poem continues:
[…] one of the voices of my mind says, “God, please
“Is this prayer?” the narrator wonders, repeatedly. What, in fact, is a prayer, how elastic is the definition? Can a person pray if he or she lacks “a real relation with God” and feels only a “sad loneliness” for Him?
(To anyone who might confuse the narrator with the poet himself, Williams once clarified: “I can’t really remember whether I ever really longed for God, or longed to long.”)
One can group Williams among Judaism’s ambivalent sons—Philip Roth, Allen Ginsberg, and Franz Kafka come quickly to mind. But Williams was also, like all great artists, sui generis. As a poet, he was intense, expansive, Whitmanesque, jumping nimbly between the inner world of emotions and the outer world of events and public concerns. Williams sometimes saw his poems as detached and oblique, infused, as he put it, with “coolness, neglect, indifference, stubbornness, even (well-examined) rage.” Others disagreed. Readers were more apt to find kinship, empathy, and an unaffected solidarity in his poems. That was certainly true of Williams’ poems that addressed specifically Jewish themes, including “After Auschwitz,” from his collection Repair, and “A Day for Anne Frank,” from an earlier collection.
Williams’ poems enacted a powerful drama: inner wars, personal struggles, attempts to overcome personal and artistic limitations. “There is a visceral discomfort in reading such material—a sense a human boundary has been knowingly traversed, an intimacy exploited,” a reviewer once wrote. Among the lessons of his memoir Misgivings was the simple, poignant truth that sons never outgrow their child-like need for their parents’ love and approval, no matter how many awards and fellowships they've won. A slightly more sanguine lesson might be extracted from Williams’ poetry: we are all stuck, it’s true, but in our stuckness, we share a profound and unbreakable bond.