Shortly after we returned to Arkansas in 1977 (with two small children in tow), my Beloved and I both considered taking occasional classes (at our nearby alma mater or at the University of Arkansas which was closer at hand). One of my ambitions was to enroll in poetry classes taught by the esteemed professor and poet Miller Williams. With the death of Williams on Thursday, January 1st, that ambition will remain unrealized.
As someone who knew Miller Williams only through his poetry, my perpetual foot-dragging (to enroll in classes) had as much to do with his august standing as with my doubts I could possibly deserve a place as one of his poetry students. Surely his cream-of-the-crop students were way more erudite and accomplished. I had no illusions about whether I belonged; I was certain I did not.
Being brutally honest here, I also wasn’t sure how I’d respond when submitting my creations for his evaluation. Maybe Professor Williams and/or his students would read one of my poems … and laugh. So, foot-drag I did and where there was once potential (to take a Williams-taught poetry class), that potential evaporated. (He actually hasn’t taught for several years, having suffered more recently from Alzheimer’s.)
The numerous obits and biographical pieces noting Williams’ passing are out there for the browsing. There’s little point to my regurgitating them here. But a few things are worthy of mention. First of all, I have come to understand I probably underestimated the professor’s attitude toward his students and his approach to critiquing their work.
Noting that he was a poet all his life – even when he was heedlessly side-tracked by a career counselor who advised him to go into hard science because he had little verbal aptitude – my sense is Williams likely had a keen understanding for the poetic soul as well as an instructor’s grace to provide gentle encouragement mixed with honest critique.
Judging from the comment of another writer (Crescent Dragonwagon) who once resided in Arkansas, this necessity for gentleness was certainly practiced by Williams. Dragonwagon notes he offered directness and urged truth-telling in her writing. With simple comments, he sharpened her understanding about herself and her writing.
In 1980, the professor organized The University of Arkansas Press. I remember the announcement of this endeavor, eager that the Press would produce publications related to our state, not necessarily all academic works. Its eclectic collection in the most recent catalog shows a wide range of appealing titles.
Though I don’t consider myself a poet of Miller Williams’ rank, I appreciate his voice in support of rhyming poetry. In a 2013 interview with the Oxford American, he stated: “I do believe that poetry is more satisfying when it has a pattern similar to those of songs.” His daughter Lucinda, a well-known musician in her own right, attests that music was a passion of both her parents and attributes her love of music to this early familial foundation.
Added to all this, Williams’ friendship with one of my favorite writers (Flannery O’Connor) certainly endears him to me even more. I love that O’Connor was the impetus for steering Williams away from teaching biology to his first position as a professor of poetry!
Two Williams poems provide a flavor for his succinct style. The first, A Tenth Anniversary Photograph, 1952, is featured on the Poetry Foundation website. The poem captures the professor’s observant eye of a moment in time that begs the question, would you go back? His word-picture draws a scene that is sharp and lean.
A second poem comes from a January 1985 issue of Poetry Magazine, also available on the Poetry Foundation website. (Unfortunately, the digitized copy of the poem is a somewhat poor quality and contains a typo in the first line of the second stanza. I have reproduced the poem below.) A Poem For Emily is beautiful and wistful, contrasting the poet with a newborn child. The poem is also sadly ironic, as Williams envisions a future where he’s eighty-six. He was eight-four when he died.