Celebrating the creative spirit of C.K.Williams

Poet C.K. WilliamsPhoto credit: Stuart Watson 

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Penn alumnus C.K. Williams received Penn’s 2010 Creative Spirit Award during the recent Homecoming Weekend in recognition of the creative influence he has had in literature.

“This award recognizes a Penn alum who displays a dedication to artistic endeavors, has created a lasting impact on his field and is regarded as an exemplary figure in the arts,” says F. Hoopes Wampler, assistant vice president for alumni relations at Penn.

Williams, who has taught creative writing at Princeton University since 1996, certainly fits the bill. A poet for more than 40 years, he has received the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize three times, winning it once.

Poetry, he explains, has a cadence, a rhythm that goes beyond prose. “Even free verse,” he says, “is an organization of sound and pace. If it doesn’t have that, it’s not poetry.”

Williams describes his work as “accessible, if you just read it. The trouble is, people are intimidated.”

Williams’ poetry is a personal expression of his experiences with objects and people. At readings, he discusses his enjoyment of life and how he captures it in his work.

Surprisingly, Williams says that when he came to Penn as a student in the late 1950s, he found very little interest in poetry: “I didn’t dare say I was a poet. My friends at Penn were almost entirely architecture students, protégés of Louis Kahn.”

“I didn’t know another poet at Penn,” he recalls. “Only one poet came to campus, e.e. cummings, and he was never one of my masters.”

While Williams counts among his great teachers at Penn historian Morse Peckham, whom he calls “a great scholar, really wonderful,” it was another Penn professor, Maurice Johnson, who was critical to his future career, although perhaps not in a traditional sense.

“I was in grad school for two weeks at Penn, trying to write poetry,” Williams says. “Maurice Johnson, the 18th century scholar, all but chased me out. That’s when I sat down and started to write full-time.”

Williams says he sees much more interest in poetry today: “The explosion of interest in poetry began in the ‘60s and endured. There are some 250 graduate programs in creative writing now, a big increase from when I was young, when there was just one.”

Poetry is always changing; that’s one of the exciting things about working in the arts, he notes. “It’s quite fascinating to watch this.”

Williams’ poems have often been characterized by their inclusiveness. As New York Times critic Richard Eder says, his “purpose is to include more and leave out less. There is a moral dimension here: He is a poet of indignant compassion for the left-out.”

Williams’ works have historically had an anti-war bent, but of late he says he sees a more threatening adversary, global warming: “The changing of the planet and the unwillingness of anyone to do anything about it.

“For the past nine years, we’ve devoted millions to ‘what-if’ another terrorist attack should occur,” Williams says. “The much greater ‘what-if’ of global warming affects more of us, more dramatically. The catastrophe is that nothing adequate is being done about it.”

Artistic prowess seems to run in the family. Williams’ son Jed is a painter and daughter Jessie Burns is also a prose writer. Both reside in the Philadelphia area, while Williams and his wife, Catherine, divide their time between Princeton and their home in the Normandy countryside, about an hour outside of Paris.

The Creative Spirit Award is part of Penn’s focus on promoting its arts and culture offerings. Initiated in 2009 as part of the Provost’s Arts and the City academic theme year, it is now a permanent part of Penn’s Homecoming Weekend, in addition to traditional athletic events. Last year’s inaugural award went to symphony conductor James A. DePreist.

Read one of Williams' poems here, or keep up with the poet and his work at www.ckwilliams.com.

Originally published on November 11, 2010