Charles Kenneth Williams was born on November 4, 1936, in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in South Orange, New Jersey. After attending high school in Maplewood, New Jersey, Williams enrolled in Bucknell College but later transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied philosophy and English. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1959. Williams briefly enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania's writing program but left before earning his degree.
He authored numerous books of poetry, including Selected Later Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); All at Once: Prose Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014); Writers Writing Dying: Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012); Wait: Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010); Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007); The Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), which won the National Book Award; Repair (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), winner of a Pulitzer Prize; The Vigil (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997); A Dream of Mind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992); Flesh and Blood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Tar (Vantage, 1983); With Ignorance (Houghton Mifflin, 1977); I Am the Bitter Name (Houghton Mifflin, 1972); and Lies (Houghton Mifflin, 1969).
Williams also published five works of translation: Selected Poems of Francis Ponge (1994); Canvas, by Adam Zagajewski (with Renata Gorczynski and Benjamin Ivry, 1991); The Bacchae of Euripides (1990); The Lark. The Thrush. The Starling. (Poems from Issa) (1983); and Women of Trachis, by Sophocles (with Gregory Dickerson, 1978).
Among his many awards and honors were an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and a Pushcart Prize. He served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Williams taught in the creative writing program at Princeton University from 1996 until shortly before his death. He died on September 20, 2015, in his home in Hopewell, New Jersey.