First Loves: C. K. Williams
One day in Mexico in the spring of 1963, I was chatting about poetry with my then new and now old friend, the painter Bruce McGrew. I'd been writing poetry, or trying to write poetry, or working towards one day being able to write real poetry for six or seven years. I hadn't published anything yet, and I'd experienced poetry mostly as a labor I'd assigned myself, a task I toiled at, scribbling and studying and constantly thinking, brooding, going crazy about. I'm sure I still hoped that someday there would be a reward for all my fretting, but when that might be seemed so uncertain that I'd essentially come not to think about it any more. On that afternoon in Tlaquepaque, I was telling Bruce about Rilke's Duino Elegies, which I'd been immersed in for months; I began to read aloud from Leishman and Spender's translation of the Eighth Elegy, "With all its eyes the creature world beholds the open...." and was astonished to have a swell of feeling so intense take me that tears filled my eyes and my voice broke, something that had never happened to me before, and I suddenly realized how deeply, without my quite knowing it, poetry had taken my heart, and I knew, too, that this was the compensation I'd been awaiting all these difficult years.
Although I'd started to write poetry at what seemed a terribly late age, nineteen or twenty, I'd actually been reading poetry for most of my life. My father loved poetry; he'd been in the poetry club in high school until he was expelled—apparently for getting into a fight, the details of which my mother would never tell me, even after he had died. Perhaps there was no poetry club in the high school he was sent to after he was expelled, which might explain how limited his taste in poetry was, despite his enthusiasm. When I was small, he used to read me James Whitcomb Riley's children's poems, and John Greenleaf Whittier—I remember "Snow-bound"—then other poems that were popular when he was young; I liked best "The Highwayman" and "Hiawatha." He also used to tell me the Greek myths as bedtime stories, and I've always been grateful to have had those chunks of Homer offered to me at an early age.
Later on, his readings to me, and then my own, were mostly from that old One Hundred and One Famous Poems. I still remember how oddly narrow the book was, printed on a coated paper unlike any I'd come across before; sometimes I may have gone to it as much for its pages' slickness and sweet, oily odor as for the poems, but the poems were there, too. My father encouraged me to memorize, and I did: Longfellow's "Children's Hour," Kilmer's "Trees," and I can't remember, fortunately, what else. I never much liked poetry as it was taught in school, except perhaps "Evangeline," "The Raven," "My Last Duchess," and some slices of Shakespeare.
Still later, when I was fifteen or sixteen and hadn't voluntarily looked at a poem for a long time, I was wandering through a bookstore and came across The Portable Whitman, and—I really can't imagine why now—bought it and spent time in "Leaves of Grass." I'd like to say Whitman's great spirit beckoned me into poetry then, but it wasn't until I'd finished my last required English course my sophomore year in college that I found myself writing poems, quite awful ones; even I knew that. I made my next assigned purchase of a book of poetry Eliot's Waste Land. I've written a poem, "My Mother's Lips," about what happened with that book: how I found myself improvising, declaiming, orating, in a kind of ecstasy, "...what I thought were poems," my own poems, from the window of a pension in Florence. Although in "My Mother's Lips" I didn't mention that I'd been reading Eliot, that was the first experience I had of the way another poet's voice can so gratifyingly take yours and lead you to states of mind and music you'd never have come to otherwise.
From then on, back in college, it was poetry every day. A course in Yeats attached me to his work, especially to the way it progressed over the course of his career. A seminar in close reading with my favorite professor, Morse Peckham, brought me into inspiring proximity to Keats and Shelley; then I found Hopkins, who was so immediately troubling and exalting. Some reading on my own of Rilke, in whatever versions I could find. Then Whitman again, explosively this time, that expansive feeling of having one's own cosmos sung for you. Then Sidney, then Villon....
....And then that day in Mexico, and one could believe one had really begun
Originally published in Crossroads, Fall 1998.
More First Loves
W. S. Merwin: First Loves
One great stroke of luck for me, as I came to realize much later, was growing up hearing poetry read aloud from the Bible after breakfast—my parents reading to us, that is, before my sister or I had learned to read. The practice never developed much momentum, and it tailed off like the keeping of most journals, but it left in my ear the sound of my mother's voice (I knew my father's from church) reading psalms. The voice was the same that she used for everything but it was refracted by this remote, resonant, lingering language. I loved that more than I knew at first.