End not with a bang, but…


Poems may be precious, powerful, and skillfully constructed, but even the best of them aren’t always perfect, poet C. K. Williams told a room of students Wednesday in a lecture sponsored by Poem Present. With latecomers still filing into Rosenwald 405 and refreshments waiting in the hallway, Williams, a Pulitzer Prize winner and creative-writing professor at Princeton, took the podium to dissect the “unsettling, dubious, unsatisfying” endings to four of his favorite poems: William Wordsworth’s "Michael,” Robert Frost’s “Out, Out,” Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. These poems—much-admired efforts of canonized authors—“fail to deliver what they promised, or in the way they promised it,” Williams said. Wordsworth’s pastoral gives short shrift to what would seem the poem’s narrative and thematic climax, while Frost ends his lyric about a tragic accidental death with what Williams called a “shocking, dismaying” shift in tone. At the end of their long poems, Rilke drifts into “mawkishness” and Eliot trades “metaphysical urgency” for “perfunctory, plaintive music.”

Still, Williams insisted—careful to allow room for his own misinterpretations—these poems’ flaws are “incidental to our affection” for them. “Odd endings” don’t diminish great poems; they remind readers that the poets are human. Recalling the advice of a master-carpenter friend who once said, “Nothing’s easy,” Williams told students: “Well, perhaps not nothing is easy,” but ending poems is certainly hard.

The next afternoon, Williams followed up his lecture with a reading of his own verse. With a volume of his collected poems due out later this year, he read both old and new works, including two (called “Shrapnel” and “Cassandra Iraq”) about “our new life at war” and one concerning global warming. “These days,” he said, “I have trouble writing about anything else.”


Photo: Williams greets admirers after Wednesday's lecture.

April 21, 2006