Love Poem With Toast
by Miller Williams
Some of what we do, we do
to make things happen,
the alarm to wake us up, the coffee to perc,
the car to start.
The rest of what we do, we do
trying to keep something from doing something,
the skin from aging, the hoe from rusting,
the truth from getting out.
With yes and no like the poles of a battery
powering our passage through the days,
we move, as we call it, forward,
wanting to be wanted,
wanting not to lose the rain forest,
wanting the water to boil,
wanting not to have cancer,
wanting to be home by dark,
wanting not to run out of gas,
as each of us wants the other
watching at the end,
as both want not to leave the other alone,
as wanting to love beyond this meat and bone,
we gaze across breakfast and pretend.
And one more by Williams:
Something That Meant to Be a Sonnet for an Anniversary Evening
by Miller Williams
I walk around them in silence, those who say
that making ourselves ready for judgment day
is the one reason we’re here, and those who insist
that we’re no ore than water with a twist.
Sometimes they take my arm. I tell them, “Okay,
that makes sense to me,” and move away.
Clearly there’s something somewhere that I’ve missed.
Somehow we probably do and don’t exist,
but all these finer subtleties fell to the floor
the night you opened the window and closed the door
and smiled in a frozen curve that burned to be kissed.
If in a parallel and cuckoo universe there were a Poem Elf Academy and I were a trainee, I would have failed my latest mission. The target was my husband, the objective to wish him a happy 26th anniversary. I left “Love Poem With Toast” on the revolving door of his office building but found out later he always exits through the back. Then, because we swim together Thursday nights, which was the night of our anniversary, I hid “Something That Was Meant to Be a Sonnet” in his bathing cap but I couldn’t get my hands on his daggone cap until after we swam. He didn’t see either poem until this moment, as he reads this post. Hello, my dear, I’ll try to not say anything more personal than the fact that you swim on Thursday nights.
My father, who married the most wonderful and fertile woman in all of Denver, liked to give his eleven children advice on choosing a mate. “Choose a woman with child-bearing hips,” he told my brothers. Dubious advice, given that the width of a woman’s hips are no guarantee of fertility or ease of delivery, and my mother has always been slender. Much better advice was his admonition to marry someone with a good heart. Thirty-three years ago, if you had asked me why I was dating my husband, “red hair” would have ranked much higher than “kind heart,” and yet here I am today, grateful that in this instance at least I listened to my dad.
Poet Miller Williams seems like a kind-hearted man, too. His voice is so easygoing and genial, you hardly think you’re reading a poem. You could be listening to someone telling a good story or mulling over life questions. Rhyme slips in, a pleasant surprise, not calling attention to itself. I always appreciate poems that are (the dreaded word) “accessible,” and Miller doesn’t run away from that. In a recent interview in Oxford American, Williams mentioned a reviewer’s assessment of his work that pleased him: “Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry because, though his poems are discussed in classrooms at Princeton and Harvard, they’re read, understood, and appreciated by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.”
The first poem, “Love Poem With Toast,” meanders around, musing over ideas about wanting and not wanting. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with love or toast, until the end (pardon the pun) when we see the couple’s dilemma: who should die first, and who is best left alone when the other goes. My husband and I often have this conversation in jest—a lot of couples do–but what’s underneath is the soulful and profound desire Miller states so simply: wanting to love beyond this meat and bone.
The second poem, “Something That Meant to Be a Sonnet,” gives me more reason to like Williams. I like how he reacts to people with strong opinions. “Okay, that makes sense to me,” he says kindly, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, knowing that people with agendas will not be convinced to change their minds. I wish I could do that instead of boiling inside with the urge to pontificate, or worse, actually pontificating. What holds him back besides his good nature is love. Once the image of his beloved wife comes to mind, nothing else matters, least of all writing three more lines to complete his sonnet.
Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930. His father was a Methodist minister, and the family often moved around small towns in Arkansas. Although he loved poetry and enrolled in college to study it, he was told he had shown no verbal aptitude in his entrance exam and was urged to study science. He got his bachelor’s degree in biology and his masters in zoology. Later he taught biology at a small college in Georgia, where he met and befriended Flannery O’Connor who lived nearby. There’s a great story about how O’Connor wrote to the English department at Louisiana State University and told them that the poet they wanted to hire at present was teaching biology at Wesleyan College. Williams sent them some of his work and got the job. He taught at various universities in his long career, eventually coming back to teach at the University of Arkansas.
Williams is father to the great singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, and was mentor to her ex-boyfriend and poet Frank Stanford. Williams gave the inaugural poem at fellow-Arkansian Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration, which you can watch here.