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Archive for the ‘Miller Williams’ Category

poem is on red post in foreground

poem is on red post in foreground

A Note to the Alien on Earth

by Miller Williams

 

Here, in the interest of time, some words to work with,

assuming you’re pretending to be a man

or woman and understand English. If this should find you,

know that I’m glad to help any way I can.

 

A letter beginning “Dear Friend” is not from a friend.

A “free gift” is redundant and not free.

A teenager is sex with skin around it.

The one word used as much as “I” is “me.”

 

People who are politically correct,

which means never offending by what they say,

will lie about other things, too. Be careful with them.

And people insulting groups of people may

 

look in the mirror too much or not enough.

What you say is not what anyone hears.

Be wary of one who is always or never sad.

And try to be patient with us. It looks bad,

but we’ve only had a few hundred thousand years.

 

 

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If the overload of cruelty and carnage in the world makes you want to hide in a shed with a year’s worth of canned goods and rom-coms, Miller Williams is here to coax you out. With his gentle humor and folksy wisdom, Williams tells us that yeah, we’ve got trouble, but nothing that a little patience and understanding can’t make right.

 

For sure this isn’t poetry to set the world on fire, and for sure his ribbing doesn’t address the very worst of modern American problems. He limits his catalogue of our ills to the culture of marketing and politics of division–but just relax for a moment and enjoy. As mothers of teenagers love to tell mothers of toddlers, little problems can be a relief sometimes from much worse ones.

 

Here, in the interests of time, begins his Spark notes on the human race. Because the poem begins and ends with a mention of time, I posted the poem near a clock tower in a northern Michigan resort town.

 

I love this explanation of one of our most salient traits:

 

people insulting groups of people may

look in the mirror too much or not enough.

 

And all of us who enjoy standing on the soapbox now and then should heed this line:

 

What you say is not what anyone hears.

 

Miller Williams is turning into a regular feature here on Poem Elf. (Link here and here for past posts.) I love his lack of pretension, his sweetness, his habit of looking things square in the eye and speaking plainly. He’s a modern day Will Rogers. Others have described him as “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.” (Quote from the Poetry Foundation’s biography of Williams.)

 

(The other thing I love about Miller Williams is that he’s the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams. Her sublime “Are You Alright” has been playing in my head since I dropped my youngest off at college a few weeks ago. If you’ve got five minutes to spare, listen here.)

 

I’ve already written a bio of Williams in an earlier post, so I’ll just copy and paste:

 

Miller Williams performing with his daughter Lucinda Williams

Miller Williams performing with his daughter Lucinda Williams

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.

 

 

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I’m trying to get this post up quickly—too many things to get done and my daughter gets home from Cameroon today—so I’ll skip the fanfare and get right to it.

 

I put an assortment of poems for Father’s Day around town.  Three of the poems are fathers addressing daughters. Another poem is a father’s lament for a failed relationship, and another is a daughter’s. One has no mention of a father at all, but it speaks to what I love about fathers.

 

That poem, the one with no particular mention of fathers, is Marge Piercy’s “To be of use.”  I put the poem in the mouse trap section of a popular dad hangout, the hardware store.

poem is hanging above yellow boxes in the middle of the picture

poem is hanging above yellow boxes in the middle of the picture

 

Up close:

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Of course any number of people in the world are useful people, people who do what has to be done, again and again, but I send this poem out to the fathers I’ve known and admired.  Especially the ones who empty the mouse traps.

 

Poem is hanging on a branch

Poem is hanging on a branch

Marie Ponsot’s poem “Hard-Shell Clams” I left in a cemetery.  All those buried wounds seemed to belong there.  The poem is so beautiful it gives me the shivers.

 

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I can’t stop reading it.  That image of the sand just kills me: a glitter like chain mail guarding who I am/from his used blue gaze that stared to understand.

 

One poem is on the window, the other on the post

One poem is on the window, the other on the post

I posted two poems of fatherly advice together on a local high school.  School is out but maybe someone will come to the gym and find the wise words of Ralph Waldo Emerson in “From a Letter to His Daughter.”

 

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Emerson’s advice is classic dad: get over it and move on.  If Mad Men’s Don Draper were a good man, a good father, this is what he might tell his children: Finish every day and be done with it.

 

Miller Williams offers different advice in “For a Girl I Know About to Be a Woman.”

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Some of the advice seems a little dated, but if you substitute other offensive words for “dago” and “wop,” his counsel is sound.  He lists tell-tale signs of a loser and abuser: if a boy tries to change you, doesn’t respect you, himself or even a snake, beware.

 

Poem is on the front bumper

Poem is on the front bumper

I put James Tates’ “Father’s Day” on a golf cart.  No, I’m not accusing all fathers who golf of avoiding their families, but some do.  I remember driving by a golf course one Thanksgiving Day with my mother-in-law.  It was snowing but sure enough two men were golfing.  “Who are they hiding from?” she said wryly.

 

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The father’s invention of a fairy tale to explain his daughter’s refusal of contact is funny and heartbreaking and a much much better version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

 

poem is on front of truck, under red sign

poem is on front of truck, under red sign

I had to do some talking to get the next poem on an ice cream truck.  Poem and camera in hand, I surveyed the situation and realized it would be impossible to tape the poem on the truck without being noticed, so I asked the ice cream man for permission.  I explained my blog, I showed him the poem, I pointed out where I wanted to tape it.  “I don’t get it,” he said. So I read the poem to him and tried to make a connection between a father leaving a treat for his daughter by her bedside and a father who might buy an ice cream treat  (that might also stain a mouth blue) for his child.  “I still don’t get it,” he said.  I changed the subject—we talked about his home country of Tanzania and my daughter’s experiences in Cameroon—and soon he put aside his suspicions of my intent and agreed, as long as he wasn’t in the photograph, to take on the poem.  Thank you, ice cream man.

 

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This poem is pure and sweet.  The father thinks of his daughter as he hikes, plans his little present, gazes at her as she sleeps and imagines her delight as she wakes. She’s on his mind, past, present and future, the lucky child.  “For Sarah, Asleep” is by my Scottish friend Angus Martin.  I hope he gets a kick out of the trek this poem has taken and will take, should the Tanzanian ice cream man decide to leave the poem on his truck.

 

Happy Father’s Day!

 

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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.

 

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And one more by Williams:

poem is on revolving door, right-hand side

poem is on revolving door, right-hand side

 

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.

 

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Image 1If 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.

 

ImageMy 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.

 

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