Tag Archives: Stoner

Novelist John Williams’ Poem ‘An Old Actor’: The Artist, Late in Life, Bids Farewell to His Audience

John Williams, author of Stoner (1965) and the National Book Award-winning Augustus (1972), was like Thomas Hardy in one respect: Williams put as much effort into his poetry as his novel-writing. Below is one of Williams’ poems written late in life, inspired by his love of drama and acting as a young man. The poem is dedicated to Ford Maddox Ford because Williams admired Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) and looked to it for inspiration while writing Stoner.


An Old Actor to His Audience

Ford Maddox Ford: 1873-1939

Sirs, I address you out of age, my voice

Gone slack and hoarse, who stood before you once

With some grace and carriage. Ah, time…

The face that once was marble now

Is flesh. Motion is impure, and we

Must move, although we break. The voice that was

Your master is your servant now, reminding you

Of its ancient art that once cast up

A substance that could move you out of time,

Our mortal blemish. And you— the wise and foolish

Who listen to an old man’s wheezing voice—

Suffered your destruction like a pleasure

Scarcely to be borne, desiring to be deceived

Out of the falsehood of your time and place.

But now I am old, am old, and suppliant

To your most gracious whim. We are the relics

Of our ruined past— although I see you now

As if you were not changed, as if you were

As I created you once long ago

Out of the pride and arrogance

Of my spent youth. To whom do I speak, if not

Myself? If not my own, whose faces stare

At me? Had you given me laurel once,

I would have worn it most carelessly

And spoken my echoing lines in its despite.

But now this pate is bald; bald pates have need

Of bay, for warmth and show. I ask

Your kindness now, and ask forbearance of

These loosening years; they make men foolish,

Who were never wise. I stand before you,

Stripped of years, a beggar.

And yet a supplicant,

I would remind you, who has given service

To you all. Out of these creaking boards

I once created worlds that you could not conceive

And peopled them with what you might have been,

Showing a fairer image of yourself

Than you would dare to dream, and given you

Some instant plucked from time that was your own.

From your deep heart’s most lonely need, I have

Dissembled shadows that became your selves

And let them stroll as if they were alive

In the Roman ruins of your northern fields.

John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel will be published by Lewbowski in the Netherlands in 2017.

Look for the Bucksnort Tavern— Near It is the Cabin Where Novelist John Williams Wrote ‘Augustus’

Follow the road into a cleft in the rocks made by the Little Elk Creek and you’ll reach Sphinx Park, Colorado where novelist John Williams owned a cabin he used for writing.

It’s easy to miss the turn that takes you up to Sphinx Park, an hour west of Denver, because first you have to go into the dog-eared town of Pine. If you get as far as Zoka’s restaurant, turn around — you’ve gone too far. Go back and take a hard right by the Pine Library (open 1 – 3 pm). You might think you’re pulling into a kind of dusty alley, but that’s the beginning of the road— keep going. Within a few minutes, you’ll begin seeing houses and cabins clinging to the rock faces high above, on both sides, and if it weren’t for the wide creek bubbling along beside you, you’d get the impression that you’re heading into a real tight spot where you won’t be able to turn around.

But keep going…

The Bucksnort Tavern

The Bucksnort Tavern

You’ll be able to turn around outside the Bucksnort Tavern— a favorite of bikers, families on vacation, and where Williams used to drink Coors beer (his brand), while smoking a cigarette and making small talk, just to interrupt the loneliness of writing.

Williams, a professor of English at the University of Denver began coming up to Sphinx Park in 1960s. He rented a place for fishing trips, sometimes bringing his son Jonathan. Then after the publication Stoner in 1965, he purchased a cabin for longer stays. “There was a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom,” Jonathan says, “and then there was kind of a porch along the whole thing, and then there’s two storage rooms, kind of a split-level. But you only lived on one level. You’d walk into the kitchen, then go to the living room and then there would be a back bedroom. And then on the very back of that, along the whole thing was a porch— built-in porch. And that’s where he did most of the writing.”

A cabin in Sphinx Park

A cabin in Sphinx Park

By then Williams was at work on Augustus, which covers the life of the Roman emperor, youth until death, through a series of letters and journal entries written by figures of the time: Julius Caesar, Marcus Agrippa, Maecenas, Cicero, Brutus, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Strabo, Nicolaus of Damascus, Horace, Ovid, Virgil, and Augustus’s daughter Julia. The structure Williams was giving the novel he called “webbed… [it will] not be straightforwardly chronological, but will cut back and forth in time, getting at Augustus’s character from many different angles and points of view.”

He took the fall quarter off in 1967 from the University of Denver to work on the novel for days at a time. And as autumn turned to winter, he could imagine from the windows of the porch that the deep, snow-covered conifer forests cleaving to the slopes were the tree-covered Alban Hills south of Rome, or the Teutoburg Forest where the Gauls lay in ambush for the brutal commander Varus and his legions!

In 1973, Augustus won the National Book Award for fiction, splitting it with John Barth’s Chimera— a first in that category, which nearly put an end to the judging all together. But that’s another story.

John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Prefect Novel will be published by Lebowski in the Netherlands in 2017.