Narrative Clarity and Dramatic Tension in “Greed” by C.K. Williams

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

In a lineated poem, the line-breaks are used to produce verbal or sonic emphasis, in addition to creating a structure that is arranged such that it is easy to parse and comprehend the poem. When line-length varies, emphasis shifts and dramatic tension or narrative effect is produced. Generally speaking, in a free-verse poem, line-length varies without a set pattern, and the variation depends on where the poet wants emphasis, but in his (free-verse) poem “Greed,” C.K. Williams uses a pattern to arrange the lines. He uses long lines (flush right-margin) that are alternated by short lines constituting five to eight syllables. The lines are enjambed and form remarkably long sentences. Such sentences may ordinarily be in danger of becoming unwieldy or out of control. Williams brings aesthetic order to the poem by using a typographical pattern and a pattern of sonic devices, thereby creating a piece that has narrative clarity as well as narrative impact or dramatic tension.
Typographically, Williams’ style of predictably continuing each long line till flush right margin and indenting each alternate line, establishes a pattern that helps the eye get accustomed to this arrangement and to parse the sentences with ease:

A much-beaten-upon-looking, bedraggled blackbird, not a starling, with
A mangled or tumorous claw,
an extra-evil air, comically malignant, like something from a folktale
meant to frighten you,
gimps his way over the picnic table to a cube of moist white cheese into
which he drives his beak.

There is a suspended syntax in this long sentence, but the words are strung together alliteratively and with the deft use of diction that creates sound patterns forming sonic clusters, making the sentence cohere and aiding comprehension. In the above stanza, “bedraggled black-bird,” “extra-evil” are alliterations. There is a sonic partnership or inter-play in diction such as “starling,” “mangled” and “malignant” or between “gimp” and “picnic” or “cheese” and “beak” or in the phrase” folktale/ meant to frighten you.” These patterns of sonic play establish a harmony which can be said to contribute to clarity in its cohesive effect. The pattern becomes more and more vivid as the poem continues:

Then a glister of licentious leering, a conspiratorial gleam, the cocked
brow of common avarice:
he works his yellow scissors deeper in, daring doubt, a politician with
his finger in the till,
a weapon maker’s finger in the politician, the slobber and the licking
and the champ and the click.

Again, we have the alliterations “licentious leering” and “daring doubt.” We also have “glister” and “conspiratorial,” “licking” and “click,” “maker’s” and “slobber” and the phrase “the cocked brow of common avarice.” These are images that are connected by sound, images that form rhythmic clusters, so that when we read the poem, they help us arrange the narrative in a sonically intelligible way. The emphasis of the narrative lies in this web of sound patterns.
In the last stanza, there is repetition, which is another way of creating a sound pattern:

It is a lovely day, it always is; the innocent daylight fades into its dying,
it always does.
The bird looks up, death-face beside the curded white, its foot, its fist of
dying, daintily raised.

Here, “always” appears in “always is” and “always does,” being deftly tied with the “d” sound in “dying,” which occurs right in the middle. The whole line reads like a mantra, a chant from a folktale, in its lyricism and narrative effect based on sounds. The sounds “ay,” “s,” “l,” “t” and “d” are repeated in a haunting way:

It is a lovely day, it always is; the innocent daylight fades into its dying,
Dying, daintily raised.

“Dying, daintily” is another alliteration. The final lines also continue the sonic inter-play of the weighty “b” and “d” sounds in “bird,” “death,” “beside” and “curded”:

“The bird looks up, death-face beside the curded white”
There is the alliterative “Dying, daintily” and “its foot, its fist” in the last lines. C. K. Williams’ use of the typographical arrangement and the heavy sonic inter-play create a narrative that progresses with clarity, highlighting each image as it moves along, and making a dramatic impact with diction based on sounds. In his case, the typographical and the sonic patterns replace variation in line-length and poetic emphasis is created independently of it.