C. K. Williams is giving us his luminous, really rapturous, account of a lifetime reading Walt Whitman. Something changed just a few years ago — then moreso when C. K. Williams, himself a lavishly decorated poet, decided to write a short book, On Whitman. “I felt he was overwhelming me. He was just annihilating every other notion of poetry I had. I spent a summer just reading everything about him, and then reading the poems again and again. Finally I thought, this guy is killing me. I have to stop, I’ll never write another poem myself. And then when I finished my new book I went back to it, and the Whitman book came very easily because I had sort of put him in his proper place in my own life and identity as a poet.”
Suddenly Williams was hearing the Whitman words as music. “He is singing. It’s a kind of singing: the way poets control language and measure and make language move is closest to music. And it probably comes from one of the modules in the brain that’s different from the language module, so that the fusion of the music and language in poetry is, for those that hear it, what makes it so addictive and so glorious.” When Williams resumed his marvelous little book on the poet’s poet a few years later, he put it this way:
The new way of composing must have come all at once; I imagine it must have felt like some kind of conversion experience. There are very few signs before the 1855 edition that this great thing was about to occur. It’s as though his actual physical brain went through some incredible mutation, as though — a little science fiction, why not? — aliens had transported him up to their spaceship and put him down again with a new mind, a new poetry apparatus. It is really that crazy.
C. K. Williams, On Whitman
C. K. Williams is reminding me that the last time we heard Sonny Rollins at Symphony Hall, three years ago, he seemed to be our walking, improvising, all-encompassing, lyrical contemporary version of the great Walt. As I noted after our interview, then concert, with the great Rollins: “When Sonny Rollins soloes, we ‘hear America singing, the varied carols’ we hear.” So it seems entirely right and just that when C. K. Williams reads Whitman nowadays, he hears something like the sound and genius of the saxophone colossus. Or as I put it on Open Source, April 7, 2007: In sum, we stopped this night with Sonny Rollins at Symphony Hall and possessed, as Walt Whitman told us we would, the original of all poems and all music:
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.