The Singing

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In his first book of poetry since Repair, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, C. K. Williams treats the characteristic subjects of a poet's maturity -- the loss of friends, the love of grandchildren, the receding memories of childhood, the baffling illogic of current events -- with an intensity and drive that recall not only his recent work but also his early books, published forty years ago. He gazes at a Rembrandt self-portrait, and from it fashions a self-portrait of his own. He ponders an ...
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The Singing: Poems

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In his first book of poetry since Repair, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, C. K. Williams treats the characteristic subjects of a poet's maturity -- the loss of friends, the love of grandchildren, the receding memories of childhood, the baffling illogic of current events -- with an intensity and drive that recall not only his recent work but also his early books, published forty years ago. He gazes at a Rembrandt self-portrait, and from it fashions a self-portrait of his own. He ponders an "anatomical effigy" at the Museum of Mankind, and in so doing "dissects" our common humanity. Stoking a fire at a house in the country, he recalls a friend who was burned horribly in war, and then turns, with eloquence and authority, to contemporary life during wartime, asking "how those with power over us / can effect such things, and by what / cynical reasoning pardon themselves." The Singing is a direct and resonant book: tough, searching, heartfelt, permanent.

Finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, Poetry

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Williams's scorching honesty has always been his calling card. His poetry proceeds not from a verbal impulse, not from a lyrical impulse, not even from a prophetic or visionary impulse, but from a moral impulse. Everything, in his work, is held up to the most exacting ethical scrutiny, beginning with the poet himself. Implicitly, and often explicitly, this scrutiny extends to very act of writing poems in the first place. And so while other poets sometimes make a show of questioning the value of poetry, Williams really means it. — William Deresiewicz
Publishers Weekly
The author of 14 books of poetry, Pulitzer Prize-winner Williams continues in his new collection to give voice to fleeting moments of domestic rapture and despair that seem to always arrive wrapped in mortality. Typical is a poem about a brief, quotidian exchange between lovers, which for Williams turns into a moment that "could go on expanding/ like this forever/ with nothing changed"-if it weren't for death. Although a number of the poems in this volume reach beyond the first person (a lyrical piece about a girl's suicide, a pair of rather lukewarm poems about terrorism), the work is chiefly concerned with age. In a poem about Rembrandt's self-portrait, the speaker articulates his growing comfort with the fact that "whatever it is beyond/ dying and fear of dying/... eludes me,/ yet no longer eludes me." The poems signal a cognizance of the obsessiveness with which they mine the personal: a poem titled "Narcissism" declares, "...The word alone sizzles like boiling acid, moans like molten lead,/ but ah my dear, it leaves the lips in such a sweetly murmuring hum." They are saved from disappearing down their own rabbit hole by the skillful ease of Williams's technique-in his trademark long lines, and in other, more varied forms, the poems can seem to write themselves-and by moments that try to register a wider range of experience: "the love of others the miracle of others all that which feels like enough/ is truly enough/ no celestial sea... just life hanging on/ for dear life." (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"The poems in C.K. Williams' stunning new collection, The Singing, have a new density and clarity. They are clear about complex things, which one sees as slightly magnified, like pebbles on the bed of a very clear stream. Williams now realizes more than ever that 'your truths will seek you, though you still/must construct and comprehend them.' He succeeds at this task with a flair that tempers the regret that is the recurring note in these poems, and transforms it into something like joy."

— John Ashbery

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374529505
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 11/28/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 80
  • Product dimensions: 4.76 (w) x 8.86 (h) x 0.24 (d)

Meet the Author

C. K. Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for Repair in 1999. His most recent work is Misgivings (2000), a memoir. He teaches at Princeton University and lives part of the year in Paris, France.

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Read an Excerpt

The Doe

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I'd only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.

The Singing

I was walking home down a hill near our house on a balmy afternoon
under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here every spring with
their burgeoning forth

When a young man turned in from a corner singing no it was more of
a cadenced shouting
Most of which I couldn't catch I thought because the young man was
black speaking black

It didn't matter I could tell he was making his song up which pleased
me he was nice-looking
Husky dressed in some style of big pants obviously full of himself
hence his lyrical flowing over

We went along in the same direction then he noticed me there almost
beside him and "Big"
He shouted-sang "Big" and I thought how droll to have my height
incorporated in his song

So I smiled but the face of the young man showed nothing he looked
in fact pointedly away
And his song changed "I'm not a nice person" he chanted "I'm not
I'm not a nice person"

No menace was meant I gathered no particular threat but he did want
to be certain I knew
That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord
between us I should forget it

That's all nothing else happened his song became indecipherable to
me again he arrived
Where he was going a house where a girl in braids waited for him on
the porch that was all

No one saw no one heard all the unasked and unanswered questions
were left where they were
It occurred to me to sing back "I'm not a nice person either" but I
couldn't come up with a tune

Besides I wouldn't have meant it nor he have believed it both of us
knew just where we were
In the duet we composed the equation we made the conventions to
which we were condemned

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that someone something
is watching and listening
Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though no one saw nor
heard no one was there

Bialystok, or Lvov

A squalid wayside inn, reeking barn-brewed vodka,
cornhusk cigarettes that cloy like acrid incense
in a village church, kegs of rotten, watered wine,
but then a prayer book's worn-thin pages,
and over them, as though afloat in all that fetidness,
my great-grandfather's disembodied head.

Cacophonous drunkenness, lakes of vomit
and oceans of obscenities; the smallpox pocked
salacious peasant faces whose carious breath
clots one's own; and violence, the scorpion --
brutal violence of nothing else, to do, to have,
then the prayers again, that tormented face,

its shattered gaze, and that's all I have,
of whence I came, of where the blood came from
that made my blood, and the tale's not even mine,
I have it from a poet, the Russian-Jewish then
Israeli Bialik, and from my father speaking of
his father's father dying in his miserable tavern,

in a fight, my father said, with berserk Cossacks,
but my father fabulated, so I omit all that,
and share the poet's forebears, because mine
only wanted to forget their past of poverty
and pogrom, so said nothing, or perhaps
where someone came from, a lost name,

otherwise nothing, leaving me less
history than a dog, just the poet's father's
and my great-grandfather's inn, that sty,
the poet called it, that abyss of silence, I'd say,
and that soul, like snow, the poet wrote,
with tears of blood, I'd add, for me and mine.

Copyright © 2003 C. K. Williams

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Table of Contents

The Doe 3
The Singing 4
Bialystok, or Lvov 6
This Happened 7
Self-portrait with Rembrandt Self-portrait 9
Gravel 10
Lessons 11
Oh 13
Narcissism 15
Dissections 16
Scale: I 17
Scale: II 19
Doves 20
Flamenco 22
Inculcations 23
Sully: Sixteen Months 24
The World 25
Of Childhood the Dark 29
Elegy for an Artist 39
War 51
Fear 53
Chaos 55
The Future 57
The Clause 58
Leaves 59
Night 60
In the Forest 63
The Hearth 65
Low Relief 67
The Tract 69
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