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ASHBY BLAND CROWDER Hendrix College, Emeritus Miller Williams, Poet and Teacher ARKANSAS POET MILLER WILLIAMS ONCE REMARKED THAT ONE OF THE best comments ever made about his poetry was that “Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.” Williams died on New Year’s Day, 2015, the same day that Hank Williams died fifty-two years before. Miller Williams wrote, translated, or edited thirty-three volumes, his first book of poems, Et Cetera, being published in 1952 and his last, Time and the Tilting Earth, in 2008. For President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration in 1997, he read “Of History and Hope.” In 2004 he joined his daughter Lucinda, a country singer and songwriter, in a performance at the Poetry Center of Chicago. Last year, Lucinda put her father’s poem “Compassion” to music, and it is the lead song on her album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. Williams was born in 1930 in Hoxie, Arkansas, into a family that was early on devoted to the elimination of discrimination against blacks and women. Because his father was a Methodist minister, the family moved frequently. Miller matriculated at Hendrix College in Conway in 1947, but he soon left Hendrix and was graduated from Arkansas State University with a major in biology. Eventually he joined the English and Creative Writing faculty at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and was one of the founders of the University of Arkansas Press, which he directed for twenty years. For many years Williams stayed away from Hendrix, but in 1995 he received an honorary doctorate from the college, and in his last years he presented three readings at the Conway campus and visited classes there. In February, 2004, he was the Robert and Lillian Drake lecturer at Hendrix. On the morning following his poetry reading the night before, he was a special guest in my poetry class. He immediately told my students that he would try to answer any questions they had. The first question was one that troubles students from generation to generation: 622 Ashby Bland Crowder Question: When you write a poem, you have a certain purpose. How open are you to different interpretations of your poems? Williams: The poems are written with the awareness that there are going to be different interpretations. This is an important part of any artistic communication, whether we’re talking about a painting, a play, or a poem. A good poem, as some of you’ve heard me say, begins as the poet’s and ends as the reader’s. You surely have finished a story or a poem and said, “This person’s writing about me.” We want that to happen as much as possible. The poet wants to lure the reader into the poem as a co-author, as a participant in the poem, so that by the time the poem is over, what that last line means is partly what you as a reader brought to it. No two readers bring the same thing, and when a poem closes with the little girl speaking of the caterpillar saying, “I think he thought he was going in a straight line” [the poem is “The Caterpillar”], you know the times you thought you were going in a straight line and you weren’t. But they weren’t the same times for any two of you. They were different lines and different circles. The last line still works, and it works in much the same way, but it’s partly your poem by the time you get to it. If I write a poem and each one of you feels it says exactly the same thing, I have failed because it’s still my poem. If I read a poem to you and you all agree about the general insight it brings you to, like “Crime does not pay,” but you’re all thinking of different crimes and “pay” means something different to each one of you, then you have not heard the same poem. Not quite. Because you became the co-author of that poem...


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