CK Williams’ poetry is lyrical, elegant and powerful. A National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, he currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at his native New Jersey’s Princeton University.
During a literary career spanning some forty years, Williams’ attention has regularly turned to the foremost issues of the day. Among a remarkable range of themes, his early verse offers a commentary on the tragedy of the Vietnam conflict and, closer to home, the struggles of the civil rights movement. While continuing to address such social topics, his later work leans towards the personal, exploring the subtleties of human relationships with an illuminating eye.
The understated Martin Harris Centre is an excellent venue for tonight’s reading, as Williams is perhaps the most distinguished, yet unassuming writer participating in this year’s Manchester Literature Festival. Opening with poems from the collections Tar and The Vigil, Williams gives an account of the moment he realised that he wanted to express himself through poetry, ‘leaning from the window, incanting in a tearing whisper,’ as captured in ‘My Mother’s Lips’. The apocalyptic ‘Storm’ which follows offers a chilling vision of the impact of global warming, while the unlikely grace of the middle-aged woman depicted in ‘The Dance’ draws on a lighter moment of reflection.
Williams’ delivery is warm and full of character. Noted for his unusually long, prose-like verse, his reading brings the story within each poem flashing into life. Adept at placing the listener directly into a scene, ‘The Singing’ and the stunning ‘This Happened’ prove to be particular highlights.
Concluding with poems from his most recent collection, Wait, a brief round of questions enables the audience to learn a little more about the man himself. Responding to whether he felt there was any subject into which poetry should not ‘poke its head’, Williams says, quite simply, ‘no’. His wry brevity speaks volumes for his passion, and raises smiles.
Affable and engaging throughout the hour-long session, Williams’ occasionally poignant verse never veers into the sentimental. Those in attendance leave the John Thaw Studio Theatre with a sense of having taken part in an intimate, stimulating and enjoyable event.
Official CK Williams website: www.ckwilliams.com
David Stedman studied English language and literature at the University of Manchester. He is a regular contributor to Manchester’s CityLifers music website.