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Miller Williams and the Poetry of the Particular.

For more than three decades Miller Williams has been publishing poems of distinctive idiom and unusual narrative and dramatic strength. Many critics have compared him to Hardy, and even more have drawn parallels between his tough, quirky monologues and the work of Browning. Still others have seen him as heir to Masters and Robinson. A few have noted the poetic kinship between Williams' work and that of the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas.

While all these comparisons and connections are helpful, none gives a sense of the variety and range and distinctiveness of Williams' poetry. The truth is the poems are not quite like anyone else's. With their swerves and plainness they seem almost to resist a first reading, but stick in the mind and pull you back for a second and successive readings. Gradually you get drawn into Williams' world of bafflement and awe, of humility and profoundness. No other poet I can think of has achieved the combination of intellectual sophistication and modesty we find in individual poems and the work as a whole.

For years Williams has written in rhyme and meter, as well as in free forms. Oddly, he seems both an old formalist and a new formalist. There is a wonderful pragmatism about his poetics. You have the feeling that he would use anything that works. As the speakers in many poems are dealing with skepticism and assurance in an uncertain world, the poet seems to be using the poems as ways of testing and exploring the provisional and elusive. I am fascinated most by the way he compromises with forms, using a pattern such as a villanelle but changing it in some way. Many of the poems have the authority and muscle of rhyme, but with irregularities, variations, and always the ease of natural cadence. Others have consistent meter, but sound like plain speech.

There is a classical hardness and clarity to the poems. They are always accessible to the alert reader, taking the risks of directness. The speaker in the poem "Ruby Tells All" says:

Dying matters a little. So does pain.

So does being old. Men do not.

Men live by negatives, like don't give up,

don't be a coward, don't call me a liar,

don't ever tell me don't. If I could live

two hundred years and had to be a man

I'd take my grave. What's a man but a match,

a little stick to start a fire with.

There is a splendid epigrammatic quality to Williams' poems. I think his greatest power comes from the unexpected combinations of a plain voice discussing elusive matters, in rhymed forms. His characters often speculate on scientific or theological questions, and they do so in forms, with a light touch. Other poems are balladic, and discursive precision is often disguised in stanzas that sound like merely light verse, as in "Rubaiyat for Sue Ella Tucker." Here Williams shows his deep kinship with the Ransom of "Captain Carpenter." Once read, Williams' poem is equally hard to forget. It ends:

She had the baby and then she went to the place

She heard he might be at. She had the grace

To whisper who she was before she blew

The satisfied expression from his face.

The baby's name was Trahan. He learned to tell

How sad his daddy's death was. She cast a spell

Telling how it happened. She left out

A large part of the story but told it well.

Williams makes the sadness in his poems work through the lightness of his touch. I can think of no one else who has fused the highbrow and the lowbrow so successfully with the spark of wit. Yet there is grief in his funniest poems, in his most fantastic allegories and hyperbolic fables. "Love and How It Becomes Important in Our Day to Day Lives," "Why God Permits Evil: For Answer to This Question of Interest to Many Write Bible Answers Dept. E-7," and "The Aging Actress Sees Herself a Starlet on the Late Show," are among his best-known poems. The last ends with the actress commenting on reruns of her early films:

How would you like never being able

to stop moving, always to be somewhere

walking, crying, kissing, slamming a door?

You can feel it, millions of images moving;

no matter how small or disguised, you get tired.

How would you like never being able

completely, really, to die? I love that.

Williams is at times an elegiac poet, again in the tradition of Ransom. He is a poet of family, and some of his most memorable poems are written to his children. I can't think of another American poet who is as aware of the past and future. He has little interest in the pursuit of the sublime, or the Emersonian moment of timeless vision. He is the poet of the human recognition, of survival, even a poet of popular culture. It fits that he has translated the Roman sonnets of G. G. Belli so ably, for Williams is also a poet of the skeptical, the vernacular quickness, of learning carried lightly. The plainness and directness of his poems wear and shine the more they're read.

I find it especially interesting that Williams is the son of an Arkansas preacher, and that he both studied and taught science in college before turning to poetry. Like so many other American poets, his career seems a trope of the American intellectual and artistic journey, from the rigor of the Puritans in New England in the seventeenth century to the Enlightenment in Philadelphia and Virginia in the eighteenth century, to the explosion of art in the nineteenth century in what we call the American Renaissance. In his own way Williams replicates the genius of the country's history.

I like it that Williams' art conceals itself more than that of most contemporary poets. If he finds profundity it is always in the most ordinary

occasions. He is a poet of synthesis and the imperfect. He relishes the asymmetry of experience, the out-of-place detail, the interruption. One of the pleasures of reading him is watching verse become poetry under our eyes. This is "Rebecca at Play."

She lies in the grass and spreads her golden hair

across the grass, as if in simple joy

at being what she is, quietly aware

that she is not a tree or horse or boy.

In my opinion the hardest rhyme form to use effectively is the couplet. Because the rhymes are so close and obvious it is difficult to make the voice sound right. Williams excels at the couplet. Through adroit enjambment and plain, precise diction, he can tell a story in couplets without missing an inflection in the telling and without distracting us with the form. "Some Lines Finished just Before Dawn at the Bedside of a Dying Student It Has Snowed All Night" begins:

The blind from birth, they do not know

that roads diminish as they go

away from us. They know that in

our later years the hair grows thin.

They know it sometimes goes away.

They do not know it turns to gray.

They do not know what mirrors are.

"For Lucinda, Robert, and Karyn" is one of the finest villanelles in modern English, and "Love in the Cathedral" is one of our most memorable sestinas. Richard Wilbur, almost alone among contemporaries, has used form so effectively.

The most important feature of Miller Williams and the Poetry of the Particular, a collection of essays and one interview, edited by Michael Burns, is the range of the contributions. The fifteen pieces give an accurate sense of the depth and variety of Williams' work. Some of the articles are brief, but almost all bring considerable insight to the poems and to tracing the poet's career. A special attraction of the volume is the set of facsimiles of successive drafts of "A Poem for Emily" placed in front of each new section, reminding us of the care of the poet at work.

Howard Nemerov's "Looking Forward/Looking Back" begins the collection. Part of the article served to introduce Williams' first volume of poems, A Circle of Stone, in 1964. It is interesting to see what a profound reader of Williams' work Nemerov was from the beginning. Part memoir and part analysis, the essay stresses "the awesome rightness" of Williams' poems, and goes on to compare the intelligence of the poetry to the discoveries of science, "Looking at what everyone has looked at, seeing what no one has seen."

Fred Chappell's contribution, "Out of the Hills of Certainty," discusses the influence of science and skepticism on Williams' poetry. It is especially effective in catching the deceptive persistence and ambition of the work. Maxine Kumin contrasts "the country speech" of the poems with their theological content, and points out that Williams, in his search for meaning, finds intellectual resonance in the most humble detail.

One of the most substantial essays in Burns's collection is Robert Wallace's "The Disorder at the Edge of Order." It is a sparkling discussion of the increasing subtlety, humor, and resilience of Williams' poetry. Wallace sees Williams as always balancing causality and connection, multiplicity and wholeness, in poems such as "Think Also of Horseshoes" and "God."

X.J.Kennedy, in "Form and Informality," touches on the brilliant combinations and syntheses Williams makes with traditional forms, showing how the poet "thinks in rhyme."

Meter, it would seem, keeps echoing in his inner car, as the words of a fundamentalist

preacher might still nag a man who has quit the church.

Of the poem "Original Sin" Kennedy says, "Had it been cast in free verse, this poem might have seemed banal." Kennedy gives us his own version in free verse to make his point. Praising the villanelle "For Lucinda, Robert, and Karyn" he says:

... the villanelle lends more support (and imposes more restriction) than most experienced

poets want; it is the favorite form of novices who wish sustaining ...

Williams triumphs by riding roughshod over the villanelle's rules, and by adapting

them to his purposes.

Kennedy points out how forms take on unexpected power when some of their rules are shattered.

John Frederick Nims, in his contribution, lovingly describes Williams' dramatic monologues and makes revealing comparisons with both Browning and Frost. And Lewis Turco shows how Williams fits "downhome diction" such as a preacher might use into traditional metrics, "committed to both tradition and personal vision."

One of the outstanding essays here is David Baker's "To Advantage Dressed," in which he discusses the humanity and outwardness of Williams' vision, contrasting his work with that of contemporaries such as Merwin and Bly. He places Williams on the secular, skeptical side of the American tradition, in line with Twain and Franklin, in contradistinction to Emerson and the transcendentalist quest for the sublime.

R. S. Gwynn provides a very sound commentary on Williams' work in translation, and Gabrielle Burton offers one of the most engaging contributions in a memoir called "Of Devils and Saviors." She recalls studying with Williams at Bread Loaf and how he helped her writing by playing both the devil's advocate and the devil: "Miller Williams with his beard and piercing eyes looked satanic to me." She was intimidated. "Never confuse a fact with truth," he said to her. "You have to be prepared to look up God's asshole." His teaching proved to be crucial to her later on. "I had the privilege of discovering a devil at Bread Loaf," she concludes.

The most memorable piece in the volume is James Whitehead's "A Recollection." An account of driving with Williams across rural Alabama in 1958, it is a delightful and revealing memoir. Williams is on the road as a book salesman and Whitehead is going to visit his girlfriend and future wife at Mississippi State College for Women. They talk nonstop about poetry and get lost on a backroad. The article has the vivid detail and atmosphere and narrative suspense of a good short story.

The interview by Richard Jackson, "A Backward Glance," gives us a chance to hear Williams comment on his own work, his interest in the five-stress line in English poetry, his interest in the variations, compromises and accommodations with traditional forms, and his use of guilt and ironic vision.

Still, I don't think I can talk very long about my poems in religious or Calvinistic

terms because I think that if there is a pervasive statement in my poems, it is a humanistic

one. A sense of guilt is a sense of isolation, and it's the sense of isolation

that makes inevitable our sense of mortality, our sense of loss, our uncertainty about

where and when we are, the consciousness of our illusions. Because of this isolation

we try to build bridges between each other. That is what a poem does. This

is a humanistic attitude, not a religious one. Perhaps the tone is colored by a religious

background, but finally the important thing is the human being. My priorities

are horizontal, not vertical.
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Article Details
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Author:Morgan, Robert
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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