How Does Poetry Matter?

For C.K. Williams, poems emerge from cities. His poetry draws our attention to urban spaces, to the ways in which they pulse with layers of interaction often missed.
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"Poetry is aloud or it is nothing," renowned poet C.K. Williams declares with the perceptive precision of a poet. Williams is thrilled to return for the fourth time to the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ where, for four days, arts venues, churches, and other spaces will resound with words spoken, listened to, discussed, celebrated. As he prepares for the festival this week, he relishes in the opportunity to share his poems at such an energizing cultural event for poetry. "I'm excited especially for Student Day," Williams shared with me in a recent telephone interview. "It is fascinating, the way these students connect with poetry. Poetry matters to them, and that sticks with me."

Williams grew up in Newark, NJ until he was 14 years old, when his parents "decided to become part of urban flight" and moved the family and, later, the family business out of Newark. Williams explains that this "urban flight," and Newark in particular as a sort of early negative model of urban devastation through flight to the suburbs, has long fascinated and concerned him. He recognizes that Newark -- the city and its people -- face significant economic and other problems still, but he is also pleased that the city is seeing "a renaissance that has, so far, allowed it to recover to the point where, among other things, it can host such a large cultural event like the poetry festival. I'm very pleased by it."

For Williams, poems emerge from cities. His poetry draws our attention to urban spaces, to the ways in which they pulse with layers of interaction often missed. He has written many poems about Newark, and his oeuvre is full of poems about urban spaces and the everyday lived experiences within them. Interactions on trains, in particular, capture his attention. The subway in New York City and Philadelphia and the Metro in Paris run through a good deal of his "subway poems." "I've been a city person all my life," shares Williams, "and I have a kind of umbilical cord attaching me to the city. I suppose since most of civilization, for good or ill, happens in cities, they are centers of civilization for me, a kind of laboratory,"

Although Williams has written poems about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and other social justice movements and concerns, he does not view himself as a "social poet," as some critics have called him. "It is inevitable," insists Williams. "As a poet, you have to write about what is around you -- the good exhaultations and the bad tensions, about other people -- if you are paying attention."

Paying attention -- this is indeed the phrase that captures William' practice and production as a poet. His poetry brings such precise, careful, humane, perceptive, vital attention to out contemporary world. His characteristically long, flexible poetic lines read with probing curiosity, with a deep desire to bring attentiveness and voice to people and moments often unnoticed. And in the reading of and listening to it, we, too, are reminded of the importance of bearing witness to the complex nature of our everyday lives. This is how poetry matters.

If you find yourself traveling to the Dodge Poetry Festival on NJTransit, read the subway poem "On the Metro" along the way. Read its long, almost prose-like lines as you sit on the long, winding train. Think about the ways in which this poem offers a single extended moment on the train, intently and intimately observed. Perhaps you'll have a chance to ask Williams about the poem when you see him at the festival.

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