Race, Identity Politics and Poetry

Charles Kenneth Williams is an American poet who started writing poetry at 19, after taking only his required English classes at University of Pennsylvania.  He began his career as a poet in the early 1960s.  He has published nine books of poetry, beginning with Lies in 1969. Since that time, he has been steadily building his reputation as an innovative and intense poet. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for Repair, followed by the National Book Award in 2003 for The Singing, solidified his place as one of the most esteemed living American poets.

Williams is known for his daring formal style, marrying perceptive everyday observations to lines so long that they defy the conventions of lyric poetry. His verbose poems often border on the prosaic, inspiring critics to compare them to Walt Whitman's. The Singing, Williams' most recent collection, explores topics surrounding aging: the loss of loved ones, the love of grandchildren, and the struggle to retain memories of childhood even while dealing with the complexity of current events.  Williams began his career as a strong anti-war writer, and in a recent profile in The New York Times stated that he still feels pulled in that direction: "It is always there, but it is more subliminal and is no longer on the surface. I do not want to be dogmatic."

He teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton University, and divides his time between Princeton and Paris.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

C. K. Williams: Race relations in the United States today-- It’s a marvelously complicated question. There was an article in the Washington Post today about some of Obama’s workers being disturbed or more than disturbed, horrified, by some of the racial responses they had had when they’d go ask people to vote for Obama. So race in America is certainly better than it’s ever been. I don’t believe that racism of one sort or another is curable. I think it’s always something that’s there for people who need it to use it whether it’s racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-immigration. There are people for whom that will always give them some kind of sustenance and I think part of the problem is that we think we can do away with that and we can’t, and I think also that part of the problem is that we ask ourselves to cure ourselves. I don’t think-- I think that there are still elements of racism in anyone no matter how much they believe they’ve overcome it. It’s still there and to make- to try to kid yourself and think that it’s not is-- makes it harder. I think it’s important to recognize that human beings tend to think in a binomial way. We think yes or no. We think good or bad. We think black or white. And that’s in our minds. That’s the structure of our minds and we have to struggle against it but we can’t pretend that it’s not there and I think sometimes we ask people to get-- to shed that from themselves, to free them from it, and people can’t. It’s there. It’s part of our mental structure and I think it’s very crucial that people recognize that other people have that.

 


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