C.K. Williams is a Princeton, New Jersey-based poet.
Repair, The Singing, Flesh and Blood
2003 National Book Award (The Singing), 2000 Pulitzer Prize (Repair), 1987 National Book Critics Circle Prize (Flesh and Blood)
Which one or two American books or plays would you yourself recommend to the foreign leaders?
Above all I’d recommend Leaves of Grass, by the incomparable American poet, Walt Whitman, though Whitman is already so celebrated throughout the world that I imagine any literate person in the world will already have read him. The other book would be the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, surely one of the great prose works in world literature. Interestingly, Moby Dick and Leaves of Grass were published within five years of each other, and astonishingly Les Fleurs du Mal was published in the same decade.
Who in your childhood—for example, parent or teacher—encouraged you to read books, and which one or two books do you remember most fondly?
My father read a lot to me when I was young, and bought me my first poetry books, one of which, One Hundred and One Favorite Poems, I used to pore over, without quite knowing why. I also went through a phase in late childhood when I was obsessed by horses and everything to do with horses and my junior high-school’s librarian used to order and save books for me. My very favorite was a purported autobiography, Lone Cowboy, by the cowboy writer and artist Will James. The book turned out to be three-quarters true, and one quarter a painful lie, which tormented James, drove him to drink, and finally to an early death.
Which books by writers of the other G8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom) have been most important to you as a writer?
When I first began to write poetry in college, the poets who first excited and heartened me were Charles Baudelaire, the French genius who was in many ways the inventor of modernism, and Rainer Maria Rilke, the great German poet. Baudelaire’s master-work, Les Fleurs du Mal, it turns out, was a powerful influence not only on me, but on Rilke, too, as he recounts in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, another book that meant a great deal to me. I’ve had many masters since then, most notably the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, but Baudelaire and Rilke have remained touchstones for my whole writing career.