As this year begins, America has lost Miller Williams. The husband of Jordan, and father to Karyn, Robert and Lucinda, he was a poet, editor, critic and translator with over thirty books to his credit. In his biography published on the Poetry Foundation website, they posted that his work was known ‘for its gritty realism as much as for its musicality. Equally comfortable in formal and free verse, Williams wrote poems grounded in the material of American life, frequently using dialogue and dramatic monologue to capture the pitch and tone of American voices.’
For someone who spent his life in academia, teaching at several institutions before joining the faculty at the University of Arkansas in 1970, he seemed most comfortable writing in a style that was both accessible and captured a rhythmic quality. This unattributed quote about himself is one he seemed to enjoy: ‘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 passed away on January 1. It was the same date that Hank died fifty-two years earlier, and what I find most interesting is the story of how the two men met. In March 2013, Oxford American published an interview with Miller by Jackson Meazle, and this is an excerpt:
Q: You have written somewhat extensively in argument for rhyme and meter in poetry. How has music informed your work? Arkansas, like many Southern states, has such a rich musical heritage. Has music always been of interest to you and your work?
MW: I do believe that poetry is more satisfying when it has a pattern similar to those of songs. I wish that I could sing well, as I’m sure you know my daughter Lucinda does, and writes her own songs. Hank Williams (no kinship there) told me that since he often wrote his lyrics months before he set them to music, they spent those months as sort-of poems. I think the kinship is real.
Q: Did you ever meet Hank Williams in person?
MW: Yes, [in 1952] I was on the faculty of McNeese State College in Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he had a concert there. I stepped onstage when he and his band were putting their instruments away and when he glanced at me I said, “Mr. Williams, my name is Williams and I’d be honored to buy you a beer.”
To my surprise, he asked me where we could get one. I said there was a gas station about a block away where we could sit and drink a couple. (You may not be aware that gas stations used to have bars.) He asked me to tell his bus driver exactly where it was and then he joined me.
When he ordered his beer, I ordered a glass of wine, because this was my first year on a college faculty and it seemed the appropriate thing to do. We sat and chatted for a little over an hour. When he ordered another beer he asked me about my family. I told him that I was married and that we were looking forward to the birth of our first child in about a month.
He asked me what I did with my days and I told him that I taught biology at McNeese and that when I was home I wrote poems. He smiled and told me that he had written lots of poems. When I said, “Hey—you write songs!” he said, “Yeah, but it usually takes me a long time. I might write the words in January and the music six or eight months later; until I do, what I’ve got is a poem.”
Then his driver showed up, and as he stood up to leave he leaned over, put his palm on my shoulder, and said, “You ought to drink beer, Williams, ’cause you got a beer-drinkin’ soul.”
He died the first day of the following year. When Lucinda was born I wanted to tell her about our meeting, but I waited until she was onstage herself. Not very long ago, she was asked to set to music words that he had left to themselves when he died. This almost redefines coincidence.
“Compassion” is a poem by Miller that was published in 1997. Should the words be familiar, it might be from the song of the same name that Lucinda released this year. The poem is rather short, and the song speaks volumes.
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.