One of the surprise literary sensations of the last decade has been the rediscovery of John Williams. His novels sold modestly in the 1960s and 1970s, and one, Augustus, shared the 1973 National Book Award. But even as his books went in and out of print, his cult following has ensured his ongoing appeal.
The 2006 re-publication of Stoner—a novel that originally came out in 1965—became a surprise hit for New York Review Books. The surprise lay in the book’s subject matter: the unremarkable life of an undistinguished academic, and its theme of the perseverance of love through all the defeats of life. As is so often the case, though, a simple description of a seemingly simple book barely begins to approach the appeal of its writing.
Dan Wakefield’s insightful interview, which Williams preferred to think of as a conversation, reveals Williams’s thoughts on the biographical foundations of what he called “the plain style.” Williams also had this to say about novels:
Novels are ‘useless’ really, we don’t have to have them, like food or shelter, but we make them anyway, and making those ‘useless’ things, that’s what separates us from the animals.
“The real value of fiction,” Williams continued, “is that it allows you to know someone other than yourself.” Poetry may be similar. Between his novels Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner, Williams put together an anthology called English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems. It too has now been brought back to print. A collection of mostly 16th century poets, it includes expected selections from Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne, and Johnson, as well as surprising ones from Skelton, More, Ralegh, Googe, and Greville.
In a review, Wilber Sanders takes issue with Williams’s theoretical division of poetic styles, but not the actual poems themselves. This collection, he says, “regularly rewards attention” and includes some poems “which have suffered unfair neglect, and which rise about the ruck to command attention. Some are difficult to find anywhere else.” In it of itself, this is the best reason for an anthology, which literally means a collection of flowers. You will find some of the poetry in this bouquet more to your liking than others. But they all have a heady aroma.