ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner in poetry this year was C.K. Williams for his book, "Repair." It touches on many topics, from the death of Martin Luther King to the housedresses worn by the poet's mother and her friends. Williams has published eight collections of poetry, as well as translations and essays. A new book, "Misgivings," about his parents' life and death, is just out. He teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton University. Thank you for being with us, and congratulations.
C. K. WILLIAMS, Pulitzer Prize, Poetry: Thanks very, very much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us a little about this book. When did you start writing some of these poems?
C. K. WILLIAMS: The book actually appeared only two years after my last book, but a lot of the poems have been in process for a long time. There's one poem in particular, called "King," that I started 30 years ago. It actually sounds a little absurd to think that. And I never was able to figure out a way to make it speak coherently about what I was trying to speak about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what happened that made it possible for it to speak coherently?
C. K. WILLIAMS: I don't really know. I just, every year or so I would come back to it and look at it and push it around a little and see what happened. Actually, when I finally did write it, it split into two, so that two poems came out of it, and I think that allowed me to focus on what was essential about it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is there a thread that runs through these poems?
C. K. WILLIAMS: Not really. I think that there's more poems in it that have to do with reconciliation and acceptance than in most of my books, perhaps, but I don't really think that there is any conscious thread, certainly, running through it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read, please, speaking of reconciliation, would you read the final poem in the book?
C. K. WILLIAMS: Okay.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And tell us a little about it first.
C. K. WILLIAMS: The poem is called "Invisible Mending." It actually also comes from an image that happened... Came to me a long time ago. Of course, any poem, any work of art comes from some kernel, some basic idea, and this was an image... when I lived in Philadelphia, there was a storefront in which there were three women, and there was a sign that said "Invisible Mending." And I used to stop and watch them because I was fascinated by their concentration and their focus. And then much, much later the poem started growing-- I don't really quite know why-- and then I began to think about the fates, and the great fates who spin out people's... our lives, our destiny, the length of our lives. And then the poem grew out of an interplay between those two things.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Please read it.
C. K. WILLIAMS: "Invisible Mending." "Three women old as angels, bent as ancient apple trees, who in a storefront window, with magnifying glasses, needles fine as hair and shining scissors, parted woof from warp and pruned what wood and human tissue had been sick. Abrasions, rents and frays, slits and chars and acid splashes, filaments that gave way of their own accord from the stress of spanning tiny, trifling gaps, but which, in a wounded psyche, make a murderous maze. Their hands as hard as horn, their eyes as keen as steel, the threads they worked with must have seemed as thick as ropes on ships, as cables on a crane, but still their heads would lower, their teeth bare to nip away the raveled ends. Only sometimes would they lift their eyes to yours to show how much lovelier than these twists of silk and serge the garments of the mind are, yet how much more benign their implements than mind's procedures of forgiveness and repair. And in your loneliness you notice how really very gently they take the fabric to its last, with what solicitude gather up worn edges to be bound, with what severe but kind detachment wield their amputating shears. Forgiveness and repair."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That line, "How much more benign their implements than mind's procedures of forgiveness and repair," and yet your book is all about the way that the mind can help us forgive and repair.
C. K. WILLIAMS: Um, I think so. It's also about how the mind can keep us conscious of the way we are in the world, sometimes the way we are in the world in ways that don't necessarily bear forgiving that we have to do things about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have a poem about Auschwitz that is about that.
C. K. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. Yes, I have. I tended to write poems about both social and spiritual problems, and some problems one doesn't really want to solve, and so the problems themselves are solved. You certainly don't want to solve problems in poems that haven't been solved in the world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Some reviewers have called these poems more tender than your earlier works. Would you agree with that, and does that have to do with age?
C. K. WILLIAMS: Possibly. One becomes a grandfather and one sees the world a little differently. Certainly the world becomes a more vulnerable place when one has a grandchild, or now I have two. And I think that possibly there's some tenderness that came out of just time and age and being a parent and grandparent.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've changed the length of your line. The poem you just read, for example, has a shorter line than many of your other poems, including many of the poems in this book. Why?
C. K. WILLIAMS: It's just a different music. The line that you... The length of a line is determined by the kind... the fusion between music and thought that you see and that you conceive of for a poem. And in some of these poems, the music came as a slightly more jaggedly kind of sound than in the longer lines, and so I wrote shorter lines.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are you encouraged about the state of poetry right now? Seamus Heaney's "Beowulf" translation is on bestseller lists all over the country. And Robert Pinsky, whom you know well, is on our show, and we're using his poetry project, with people all over the country reading poetry. Do you think that poetry is in quite good shape in this country right now?
C. K. WILLIAMS: I think it's certainly growing. I think poetry always lives its life, and people come to it and people go away from it, "people" in the sense of larger numbers of people. It's as though you begin to think that poetry is a resource, and that at certain times people seem to need it or want it or can find sustenance in it, and at other times they can't. And right now, it's a good time. There's a lot of people reading it, a lot of young people are writing it, so it's a quite gratifying time to be in the poetry business.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When did you know you wanted to be a poet?
C. K. WILLIAMS: When I was about 19. I wrote what I thought was a love poem for a girlfriend, and the feeling of writing it was something I'd never experienced before, although I had read a lot of poems when I was young. My father read poetry to me, encouraged me to memorize poems. But the writing of it was quite a different thing. And somehow right away, after that first poem, although I knew I wasn't trained for it, I had no real background for it, I knew that that was what I was going to do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain that feeling. What is it that you like about writing poetry?
C. K. WILLIAMS: Well, something happens when you write-- especially poetry, of course, and prose, too. There's a kind of a feeling of something happening to you that's a kind of fusion of will and submission and inspiration that's quite marvelous, where something sometimes will-- at its very best-- seems to be happening through you and to you, rather than you making it happen. And there's very little in the world that's like that, and very little that's so close that's coming out of your own consciousness into something else.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, C.K. Williams, thank you so much for being with us, and congratulations.
C. K.WILLIAMS: Thanks very much, Elizabeth.