Nationality: American. Born: Hoxie, Arkansas, 8 April 1930. Education: Arkansas State College, Conway, B.S. in biology 1951; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, M.S. in zoology 1952. Family: Married 1) Lucille Day in 1951 (divorced): 2) Rebecca Jordan Hall in 1969; two daughters and one son. Career: Taught biology at McNeese State College, Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi; instructor, 1962–63, and assistant professor of English, 1964–66, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge; associate professor of English, Loyola University, New Orleans, 1966–70; Fulbright professor of American studies, National University of Mexico, 1970. Co-director, graduate program in creative writing, 1971–80, associate professor, 1971–73, director, program in translation, 1974–80, professor of English, 1973–87, and chair of the comparative literature program, 1977–80, and since 1987 professor, University of Arkansas. Visiting professor, University of Chile, Santiago, 1963–64. Poetry editor, Louisiana State University Press, 1966–68; editor, New Orleans Review, 1968–69; since 1978 contributing editor, Translation Review, Richardson, Texas; founding director, University of Arkansas Press, 1980–97; president, American Literary Translators Association, 1979–81. Awards: Henry Bellaman award, 1957; Bread Loaf Writers Conference fellowship, 1961; Amy Lowell traveling scholarship, 1963; Arts Fund award, 1973; American Academy in Rome fellowship 1976; Poets' prize for Living on the Surface, 1991; Charity Randall citation for contribution to poetry as a spoken art, 1993; John William Corrington award for literary excellence, 1994; Academy award for literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1995. H.H.D.: Lander College, Greenwood, South Carolina, 1983. D.H.L.: Hendrix College, 1995. Address: Department of English, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas 72701, U.S.A.
A Circle of Stone. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1964.
Recital (bilingual edition). Valparaiso, Chile, Ediciones Océano, 1964.
So Long at the Fair. New York, Dutton, 1968.
The Only World There Is. New York, Dutton, 1971.
Halfway from Hoxie: New and Selected Poems. New York, Dutton, 1973.
Why God Permits Evil: New Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
Distractions. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
The Boys on Their Bony Mules. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Imperfect Love. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1986.
Living on the Surface: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Adjusting to the Light. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1992.
Points of Departure. Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1995.
The Ways We Touch. Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Some Jazz a While: Collected Poems. Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture, with James A. McPherson. New York, Random House, 1976.
Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1986.
Editor, 19 Poetas de Hoy en los EEUU. Valparaiso, Chile, United States Information Agency, 1966.
Editor, with John William Corrington, Southern Writing in the Sixties: Fiction and Poetry. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2 vols., 1966–67.
Editor, Chile: An Anthology of New Writing. Kent, Ohio, Kent State University Press, 1968.
Editor, The Achievement of John Ciardi: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems with a Critical Introduction. Chicago, Scott Foresman, 1969.
Editor, Contemporary Poetry in America. New York, Random House, 1973.
Editor with John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean?, revised edition. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1975.
Editor, A Roman Collection: Stories, Poems, and Other Good Pieces by the Writing Residents of the American Academy in Rome. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1980.
Editor, Ozark, Ozark: A Hillside Reader. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1981.
Translator, Poems and Antipoems, by Nicanor Parra. New York, New Directions, 1967; London, Cape, 1968.
Translator, Emergency Poems, by Nicanor Parra. New York, New Directions, 1972; London, Boyars, 1977.
Translator, Sonnets of Giuseppe Belli. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1981.*
Manuscript Collection: Special Collections, University of Arkansas Library, Fayetteville.
Critical Studies: "About Miller Williams" by James Whitehead, in Dickinson Review (North Dakota), spring 1973; "Translating the Dialect: Miller Williams' Romanesco," by John DuVal, in Translation Review (Richardson, Texas), 32–33, 1990; Miller Williams and the Poetry of the Particular edited by Michael Burns, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1991; "Never Confuse a Fact with Truth: The Poetry of Miller Williams" by Robert Morgan, in Mississippi Quarterly (Mississippi State, Mississippi), 46(1), winter 1992–93.
Miller Williams comments:
I am not sure that one ought to discuss one's poetry in public; it seems somehow not quite decent, and, besides, almost anyone will have a better perspective on a body of poems than the poet. It may mean something if I say that I distrust the romantic vision and dislike the classical. Beyond this, the poems are there to be read for what they have to say and how they say it.* * *
Miller Williams is a poet of the American small town, its streets and neighborhoods, its bus stations and shabby factories. Simple logic reveals, however, that a town ultimately takes its character from the character of its people. Williams has learned this lesson early and learned it well, for a strength throughout his career has been his adeptness at portraiture. In the introduction to Williams's first book of poems, A Circle of Stone, Howard Nemerov links him to the character-portrait tradition of Edgar Lee Masters, and one may as well add to that tradition those of Edwin Arlington Robinson and John Crowe Ransom. Where Williams is most successful at these portraits, he achieves a balance between the subtle irony of Masters or Ransom and the more blatant irony of Robinson. "On the Death of a Middle Aged Man," perhaps Williams's best-known early poem, strikes such a balance.
A reader learns quickly of the character's unambiguous feeling toward his unambiguous name:
who wished his mother wanting a girl again
had called him something at best ambiguous
like Francis or Marion
Williams achieves subtle irony, however, in giving ambiguity a large role in the poem, in the question, for example, of whether the sexual encounters of Beverly's sweetheart, Helen, really "counted" since they were with her older brother and her minister. Ambiguity enriches the poem, too, in Williams's statement that Beverly "went for eleven years to the Packard plant / and bent to Helen who punched the proper holes / how many bodies." This bending to connotes both a romantic gesture, bowing, and a sexual one, bending toward or bending over someone in the act of lovemaking. Williams retains this ambiguity in his Halfway from Hoxie: New and Selected Poems, when he changes "bent to" to "turn for," the act of turning suggestive again both of a romantic gesture and a sexual one, as in "turning a trick."
Williams's work calls to mind—in addition to Masters, Robinson, and Ransom—such Latin American surrealists as Nicanor Parra, whose poems Williams translated and published as Emergency Poems. Taking ideas and images to their zany extremes seems a surrealist method for which Williams has a flair. "I Got out of the House for the First Time," "Toast to Floyd Collins," and "And Then," all new poems in Halfway from Hoxie, use repetition to create a sense of lost equilibrium and absurdity, with "And Then" conveying a more serious tone than the first two:
Your toothbrush won't remember your mouth
Your shoes won't remember your feet\
Your wife one good morning
will remember your weight
will feel unfaithful
throwing the toothbrush away
dropping the shoes in the Salvation Army box
will set your picture in the living room
someone wearing a coat you would not have worn
will ask was that your husband
she will say yes
Williams's stylistic range encompasses an ornate but energetic formalism, a flat, prosaic free verse and a more sharply hewn free verse. In "Leaving New York in the Penn Central to Metuchen" (Halfway from Hoxie), Williams uses alliteration in his rhymed couplets to such a degree that it might be called overused if the lines did not evoke so well the motion of a subway train: "Go buck, go hiss and the bright balled works / tremble and turn. Go clank and the car jerks."
More than a handful of poems, however, leave behind rhythm when they leave behind rhyme. "Lying," from Distractions, lacks the vitality that a stronger sense of music would give it. The casualness of the lines approaches the mood of someone passing time, but one cannot help but feel that the language itself lacks energy:
Standing beside a library in Brooklyn
I wait for my ride to come. I turn some pages.
A man puts his foot on a fire hydrant
and bends to tie his shoe. I see a gun.
Yet Williams can, as "And Then" illustrates, shape his free verse to musical ends, avoiding the prosaic and giving that free verse an almost incantatory power.
Two of Williams's finest poems, both from Distractions, depart from his typical sardonic tone. In "Rebecca, for Whom Nothing Has Been Written Page after Page," Williams addresses a granddaughter and tries to explain that, despite his esteem for language, language cannot do justice to a description of her. This theme is not new, yet Williams's tone succeeds in establishing an intimacy rare in his own work and a degree of intimacy rare in the work of many other poets. After acknowledging the serviceability of language, Williams writes elegiacally of its limitations:
What phrase explains, what simile can guess
a daughter's daughter? We half know who you are,
moment by moment, remembering what you were
as you grow past, becoming by quick revisions
an image in the door.
The sardonic tone also is gone in "Evening: A Studio in Rome," and while it would be hard to prove a cause-and-effect relationship, the change in tone seems to allow Williams to write movingly of a city just as he can write movingly of small towns. This meditative poem, in contrast to some of his others, is more luxurious, more willing to take its time in fleshing out the moment:
The window here is hung in the west wall.
It lays on the opposite wall a square of light.
Sliced by the lopsided slats of the broken blind,
the light hangs like a painting. Now, and now,
the shadow of a swallow shoots across it.
One recognizes Williams's deftness with alliteration, here the "sw" in "swallow" breaking up nicely the "sh" in "shadow" and in "shoots." What is new, however, is the acute perception of the swallow's shadow on the wall: "Now, and now." Such patience also provides the poet with his final passage, one that seems to indicate that Williams's good poems have gotten better:
This minute Rome is dark
as only Rome is dark, as if somebody
could go out reaching toward it, and find no Rome.