Letter To A Young Poet from C.K. Williams


Pulitzer Prize winning poet, C.K. Williams, gives his advice for a poet starting out.

I’ll begin by promising that there’ll be times in your life as a poet when the problems that are a part of trying to live that life will make the whole undertaking seem a terrible mistake, and you’ll find yourself thinking there must be something else to do that might better reward your labor.  And indeed some poets do release themselves from poetry; they become novelists, or teachers, or accountants, (happy accountants!) and this can happen to poets who are still surprisingly young.

I should also say though that I don’t think the decision to abandon poetry has to do with how much talent one believes one has or doesn’t have, or how much dedication, or confidence; it’s rather more a spiritual crisis, a loss of faith in the conviction that poetry has a value beyond the doing of it.  Surely the pleasures of that doing are undeniable; the making of something from nothing is a delight unlike anything else.

So the conviction that poetry has significance beyond its practice becomes absolutely essential, yet it isn’t at all self-evident.  Finally, at some point we have to ask what it is that draws us to poetry in the first place? It seems to me that the essential function of poetry is to unify.

Human beings experience ourselves as assemblages, almost collages, of the passional, the sensual, the intellectual and the spiritual. We are at once philosophers, aestheticians, social and political theorists; we are lovers and haters, children and parents, we lie, we tell the truth, we make myths and stories; there is violence in us, but there is also the unlikely charity which illuminates our spiritual history.  And what’s more, we are both participants and observers of all these portions of ourselves, these selves.   Poetry’s real greatness is that it is the most effective means we have of bringing together these apparently disparate parts of ourselves.  Because to be real poetry must be true, and  because it must deal unconditionally with the reality of a single person’s existence, by its definition it entails a bringing together of selves within the self.  Poetry makes us more whole than we thought we could be.

And for a poem to do this, in some strange way it doesn’t matter what it is about, what its subject is.  Poems can be self-consciously dedicated to the moral adventures of our lives; they can delve into that complex swarm of emotions and thoughts out of which our ethical sensibilities and obligations arise, and this will give them a certain admirable weight, like the poems of Dante, or Milton, or Baudelaire, but whether poems do this or not doesn’t determine their ultimate merit.  All poems exist in the tension between the immateriality of consciousness and language and the brute physical facts of reality, and so all poems, or all poems that are not empty drums banged to garner the applause of others, poets or critics, resolve this tension in ways that make them speak both to and out of the self.  A poem can seem to be about nothing at all – a clever conceit about lost love in a sonnet by Ronsard, a meditation on a moment of sensual delight in an ode of Keats – and yet, if a poem is authentic, if it is true, it will still evoke this essential unity in us, and will help us understand that we are not the poor fragmented things we can seem to be, and that our social organizations aren’t merely groupings of other fractured beings.  Because poetry demonstrates that the plural is merely a convention for the human spirit. The truth is that we are born and live and die one by one, and poetry, because it speaks at once to the poet and the reader, links the experience of one single soul to another and by doing so it exalts both.  That, finally, is what poetry is about, it is what allows us to be able to sit in a room by ourselves and do battle with language and form and with the pain of being able to do so little about human pain, and still feel we are doing what we know is the right thing.

Pulitzer Prize winning poet C.K. Williams has published numerous books of poetry, including Wait: Poems (2010); Collected Poems (2006); The Singing (2003), Repair (1999), The Vigil (1997); A Dream of Mind (1992); Flesh and Blood (1987); Tar (1983); With Ignorance (1997); I Am the Bitter Name (1992); and Lies (1969). He has also published five works of translation.

Among his many awards and honours are an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Pushcart Prize. He has served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. Currently Williams teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton University and lives part of each year in Paris

C.K. Williams has travelled to the UK to give the Poetry Society’s Annual Lecture “On Being Old.” He will also read a selection of his poetry at the lectures which will take place on:

  • Wednesday 25 May at Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, Newcastle University
  • Thursday 26 May at Senate House University College London
  • Thursday 13 October at the Kenneth Allott Lecture  at Liverpool University

In C.K. Williams’ Letter To A Younger Poet, he emphasises the need to keep faith in poetry. If you had a time machine and could send a letter back to yourself when you first started writing poetry, what would you say? Do you have questions you would like to ask your future self?

Published May, 2011

4 thoughts on “Letter To A Young Poet from C.K. Williams

    1. I think you’re right. The secret (if it can be celald that) is just to keep working and submitting and working some more. And writing is hard; it’s work. Maybe some people are just looking for the quick fix success you can enjoy but that you don’t have to actually work for.

  1. I felt my eyes open up slightly at what he said how the importance and outflow of poetry was largely dependent on a I’ve been upset for the last few weeks because I am not writing a lot, and frankly, not feeling the need to write a lot. I feel like a spiritual sap inside me is currently dry and content. I dunno, I was feeling scared that I couldn’t write any more, and had no skill left. Now, I’m relieved that it’s just a spiritual phase of transition 🙂

    Thank you, Mr Williams 🙂 It was a pleasure reading your message, a bit like reading Rilke 🙂

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