Miller Williams is one of the most respected poets of his generation. He was chosen by President Clinton to compose and read a poem at his second inauguration in 1997, and has won a bookcase full of literary awards and prizes. But when he was a freshman in college, he was told he had no future as a writer.
“I entered Hendrix College here in Arkansas in ’47, and declared a double major in English and foreign languages,” he told me recently. “I was called into the office of the head of the psychology department about half-way through the semester. They had given aptitude tests to all incoming freshmen, as they did then. He, addressing me properly, said, ‘Mr. Williams, your aptitude tests show that you have absolutely no aptitude in the handling of words. And if you don’t want to embarrass your parents, you need to change your major to the hard sciences immediately.’
“I was brought up to respect my elders and the titles they had, so I changed my major at the end of that semester and majored in biology and chemistry. I became what we called an ‘ABD’---all but dissertation--- in physiology and biology. I attended the first two years of Ole Miss med school and taught biology and chemistry on the college level for twelve years. But my publications were still in poetry, short stories and criticism almost exclusively.”
Williams, who comes to town next week for a joint appearance at the ODU Literary Festival with his Grammy-winning daughter Lucinda, would morph from science professor to professor of English thanks to the assistance of a special friend:
“When I was teaching at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, I had an opportunity to meet Flannery O’Connor, who lived just a few miles away at her farm called Andalusia. I’d say, ‘you call ‘em stories but I just think they’re long poems,’ and she’d say, ‘well, you call ‘em poems and I think they’re short stories.’ It got to where I’d go over there every two or three weeks and Lucinda, who was five, would go with me. Flannery let her chase her peacocks.
“We became dear friends and in 1961, LSU advertised for a poet to teach in their writing program. Though I had only had three hours of freshman English formally, she saw the ad and, without mentioning it to me, wrote them and said the person you want teaches biology at Wesleyan College. They couldn’t believe that, of course, but they couldn’t ignore Flannery O’Connor. So they sent me word that said, ‘Would you send us some of your work?’ And I did.”
He got the job, joining the LSU faculty in 1962. From there, he built a literary career that continues to this day. He made numerous friends along the way, folks like Dave Brubeck, George Jones, Robert Frost and Jimmy Carter, but one of his favorite memories is an evening spent with country music legend Hank Williams.
“In 1952,” he remembered, “I was teaching at McNeese State College in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Lucinda was just on her way in the womb. He and the Drifting Cowboys performed at McNeese and after it was over, they were up on the stage by themselves---the audience was gone and they were putting their instruments away. I stepped up onstage, and he looked at me and said, ‘Yeh?’ I said, ‘Mr. Williams, my name is Williams and I just wanted to tell you you’re the best there is.’ And he said, ‘Anywhere around here to get a drink?’
“In those days you could get a drink at an Esso station; they had booths. I said, ‘Yeh, just a few blocks down the street.’ He said, ‘Tell my driver where,’ and I did.
“We went in my car, and he sat facing the door so he could see when his driver came in. He ordered some beer. It was my first college teaching job and though I was an instructor, I thought of myself as a college professor---I was only 22—and I said, ‘Well, I think I’ll have a Scotch.’ Because that’s what college professors drink.
“So I had a Scotch and he had more than one beer; we were just chatting about all sorts of things. His driver showed up, so he stood up and walked past me in the booth. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked down and said, ‘you oughtta drink beer, Williams, ‘cause you got a beer drinking soul.’ And I haven’t had a Scotch since!
“He died right after that in that same car, about two weeks after we met. [Hank Williams died on New Year’s Day, 1953.] And Lucinda was born on January 26th.”
Unlike many contemporary poets, Miller Williams writes poems that flow with the rhythm of good music. I asked him what he felt the difference was between a poem and a song lyric.
“The difference,” he replied, “is that a poem has to provide more of its own music than a song lyric does. A poem which is sung can get away with more than a poem that is simply read. If reading is all there is, you have to fill the ear simply with spoken words. And they have to obviously do more than words that are filling the ear with the help of music.”
He often uses rhyme, though it is typically subtle, unlike the obvious rhyme schemes found in the lyrics to most songs.
“It gives the poem a sense of coherence, of being of one piece,” he explained, “because that is the thread running through it. One of the problems we’re finding with some of the poetry today is that it is obscure or so mysterious we can’t understand it; or it is so flat that it has no mystery about it. It is easy either not to be understood or to write so flatly that there is nothing shimmering in the words. What is difficult and rewarding is to be clear and mysterious at the same time.
“There has to be a solid ground to stand on with still unanswered questions. I think any art has, to some degree, to become the viewer’s or the reader’s or the listener’s. When you and I hear a good song or a good symphony or see a great painting, we have not heard or seen the same thing. Because part of what I see, I took there. Part of what I hear, I took there. So did you, but we didn’t take the same thing. A work of art has got to be open enough for what I bring and for what you bring. It is in this way that any work of art belongs in part, after the experience, to the person who experienced it.
“I believe that every poem should begin as the poet’s and end as the reader’s.”
As for writing poetry, Williams says you have to let a poem go where it will:
“That’s the difficulty in writing what we call an ‘occasional poem,’ a poem for an occasion. When Mrs. Fulbright called to ask me if I’d write a poem to read at Senator Fulbright’s funeral, or the White House wanted me to read a poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the difficulty was that I couldn’t let the poem go where it wanted to. Almost any poem I write, I start out with an image and an idea, and I think I know what it’s all about. Then I realize after ten lines, no it’s going this way or that way.
“But when you’re writing an occasional poem, it’s got to be about what you want it to be about because that’s the occasion to which the poem has to shape itself. Only with those poems do I know where I’m going because I force myself to get there. It’s like walking a dog that doesn’t want to stay on the sidewalk.
“Mostly when I start a poem, I have no idea where it’s going. What I do know is that no first draft was ever too short. Every first draft is too long. And a part of revision is finding ways to cut it. We always say more than we have to say in the beginning.”
Miller Williams’ poetry is both polished and down-to-earth, sophisticated yet accessible. His one-night drinking buddy shows up in one of the poet’s favorite quotes about himself:
“One of the best things that has ever been said about my work was said by a critic who wrote that ‘Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.’”
Miller Williams spent 32 years at the University of Arkansas, retiring in 2003 as University Professor of English and Foreign Languages. While there, he founded the University of Arkansas Press in 1980, and befriended a young law instructor named Bill Clinton, distributing campaign literature in Clinton’s first unsuccessful run for Congress in 1974. Twenty three years later, he stood on the Capitol steps and read his inaugural poem, “Of History and Hope.”
He and his eldest child, Lucinda, obviously share a great deal of love and a strong father-daughter bond. He’s quite proud of her songwriting prowess.
“As a song lyricist,” he said, “I think she is as good as you get. I don’t always agree with Time magazine, but I agree with their saying she’s ‘America’s best songwriter.’”
And every so often, the Williamses share a stage as they will Friday night at the Granby Theater.
“This will be about the seventh time we’ve done it. I’m on one side of the stage; she’s on the other side and sings with just her guitar. We go back and forth, make a few smartass father and daughter remarks to each other that everybody enjoys.
“One of my most anthologized poems is called ‘The Caterpillar.’ She gave me the last two lines of the poem when she was five years old. It was the same time we were seeing Flannery. So I start with that one.
“During all of her career, she has shown me every song she’s written and asked for feedback and criticism, and she makes some clever little remarks about that. We just have a lot of fun.”
copyright © 2005 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.