TOPICS > Arts

American Poetry

January 16, 1996 at 12:00 AM EST
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Williams has written 26 books, including poetry and criticism and a history of American railroads. Among his many awards are the Henry Bellam poetry prize and the Amy Lowell award in poetry presented by Harvard University. He’s director of the University of Arkansas Press and Professor of English and Foreign Languages at the University of Arkansas.

Thank you for being with us and congratulations on this great honor.

MILLER WILLIAMS, Inaugural Poet: Thank you, and thank you for having me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I understand that you met Robert Frost shortly after he read for President Kennedy in 1961. Did his experience then have any lessons for you?

MILLER WILLIAMS: In August of ’61, I was a fellow at the Breadloaf Writers Conference. He was a staff member and as you may know founded the conference some decades earlier. Yes, he was already one of my great teachers, without his knowing it. He was generous with his time. He talked to me about poetry, about how to make it work and why it often doesn’t, and shared insights that I think I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. He sent me home from the Breadloaf experience a very different person and different poet than I had been when I went.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As I remember, the pages of his poem flew off the podium, and he had to recite it from memory.

MILLER WILLIAMS: Yeah. And then he switched to an earlier poem that he knew was appropriate to read because he had not had time to memorize that one. It was–there was also a fire on the platform. A space heater ignited something flammable, and he had that to deal with while he was reading. I’m going to try to read without any pyrotechnics. But I do hope that I can read with the kind of composure that he had. I will tell you one thing I haven’t mentioned to anyone else. I am taping my poem down to a hard piece of cardboard so that it can’t blow around in the wind.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I don’t blame you a bit for doing that. How have you approached writing this poem? It must be quite different from other poetry that you write. You’re having an estimated audience of 200 million people watching you.

MILLER WILLIAMS: It is very different from the way one goes about writing a poem most often, certainly different from the way I do. This is not the first occasional poem, as we call it in the trade, that I’ve written. Fortunately, I had some practice. When Jimmy Carter came home from the White House, I was asked by his family and friends if I would write a poem to read in Plains to help welcome him home. Jim Whitehead, the poet, and I read there on that occasion. When Sen. William Fulbright was dying, I was asked by his family and friends if I would write a poem to be read as an elegy at his funeral. I only had four days to do that. And I’m finding that what I had to do then is working now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you do?

MILLER WILLIAMS: Well, I put myself in a spiritual and physical place where I’ve learned from experience the synapses are likely to fire and the juices are likely to flow, and simply begin to write. I sit in a leather chair in my study after the rest of the household is asleep and maybe with the little shitzu between my feet on my foot stool with a lap board in my lap actually, a yellow legal pad, and a real fountain pen, and I start writing, trying to keep in mind what I’m writing about, what I’m trying to do, and maybe for two or three hours there would be nothing but nonsense on the page, and things begin to come together.

This is very different from the practice that we usually find, and I usually follow, of simply walking down the street and hearing a phrase or picking up a rhythm or seeing something visually that is interesting and ironic and going home and beginning to use one’s knowledge of craft to build that into an experience of language that a reader can engage. The main difference, though, is that when one is writing a poem like that, just spontaneously, the poem can go where it wants to. You may think it’s going to be a love poem, but it may turn out to be a poem to your granddaughter, or a poem about the futility of carrying out the trash every day of our life, no matter what you thought it was going to be. When one is writing an occasional poem, one is not at liberty to let the poem have its head and go where it wants to, you’ve got to stay on the subject at hand. That’s the main, the main difference.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it much harder because of that?

MILLER WILLIAMS: I think it’s much harder. It’s harder partly because of that and partly because in a case like this, considerable attention attends the situation, and it’s been a little bit difficult to find the time to hide away as much as I’d like to, to let all this poem come together. But I don’t really mind this. I don’t mind the class of schoolchildren from Texas who are going to be at the hotel lobby where I’ll be staying in D.C. and want to meet me and talk a little bit about poetry. I don’t mind the group at Howard University who asked me to come over and chat with them for a little while because I truly believe that when one accepts an appointment like this, the Inaugural Poet, one to a certain degree, to an important degree, enters the public domain. A part of me belongs to the American people for a while, at least for a while, and I think that it behooves me to give them as much of the inaugural poet as possible. And so I’m interviewing and answering phones and shaking the hands of grade school children. It’s really a wonderful experience.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mentioned a poem about your granddaughter. Would you read for us “A Poem for Emily.”

MILLER WILLIAMS: Let me say that this has been in a number of anthologies and textbooks.One of the textbooks in which it appears has an appended note saying the poet wrote this at the crib of his granddaughter on the day of her birth. I wish I could write that fast. I got the idea then. I finished it six yellow legal pads and six months later. But it’s written as if it were there, as if I were still standing there, and I want it to be read that way. “A Poem For Emily.”

Small fact and fingers and farthest one from me. A hand’s width and two generations away, in this still present, I am 53, you are not yet a full day. When I am 63, when you are 10, and you are neither closer nor as far, your arms will fill with what you know by then, the arithmetic and love we do and our. When I by blood and luck am 86 and you are someplace else and 33, believing in sex and God and politics, with children who look not at all like me, sometime I know you will have read them this, so they will know I love them and say so and love their mother, child whatever is, is always, or never was. Long ago, a day I watched a while beside your bed, I wrote this down, a thing that might be kept a while to tell you what I would have said when you were who knows what and I was dead, which is I stood and loved you while you slept.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s a beautiful poem.

MILLER WILLIAMS: Thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve distinguished between poetry which is close to plain talk and poetry closer to pure ritual. Which is this?

MILLER WILLIAMS: I don’t think I can say which I would prefer or which is better. I like to think that the best poetry is or involves a contest between ordinary conversation and ritual. There is something about the best poem that wants to set it in the–in a pattern like a Gregorian Chant. And there is something about the best poetry that makes it want to seem like a cocktail party conversation. It’s partly in the tension between these two tendencies that a poem gets its energy and its life I think.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I asked because I wondered if your–if your inaugural poem would be much closer to what you would consider a poem of ritual with rhyme and end stops, as opposed to a more conversational poem like this is somewhere between the two.

MILLER WILLIAMS: Yeah. This poem is in rhyme and meter. I like the fact that many people don’t realize the rhyme and meter consciously until they look closely at the poem printed on the page. I think it’s heard. I think it’s subliminally effective, but I don’t want it to jump out. The inaugural poem, yes, will be a formal poem. It will be in measured lines and have a rhyme scheme. I think that the rhyme scheme will be something that will grow on the listener slowly if the poem as heard. I don’t want to read two lines and someone says, hey, this rhymes. I would like to hide the fact that it does because if the ideal situation is that a word does rhyme but it is the word you would have used even if it doesn’t, even if it didn’t, and then you realize later on, hey, that rhymes, there’s a pattern here, there’s a growing sense of ritual. And ritual is important to us as human beings. It ties us to our traditions and our histories. I don’t like poetry that doesn’t give me a sense of ritual, but I don’t like poetry that doesn’t sound like people talking to each other. I try to do both at once.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mr. Williams, I look forward to hearing your inaugural poem. And thank you very much for being with us.

MILLER WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.