Poet Miller Williams died at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on January 1. He was 84. The words “famous” and “poet” aren’t often used together in the 21st Century, but using them for Williams would have been fair.
The University of Arkansas graduate, who completed undergraduate work at Jonesboro’s Arkansas State University, was born in a small town called Hoxie in 1930. From humble beginnings, he achieved widespread acclaim as a poet, editor, critic, and translator, according to the Poetry Foundation.
His undergraduate degree was in biology, and his graduate degree was in zoology. But his fame would come through his literary endeavors, having written, translated, and edited more than 30 books and giving a memorable reading of “Of History and Hope” at the second President Clinton inauguration in 1997.
Williams’ daughter, Lucinda Williams, followed in her dad’s poetry footsteps and became a Grammy Award-winning musician, whose songwriting work would be recorded by stars like Mary Chapin Carpenter (“Passionate Kisses”) and Tom Petty (“Changed the Locks”).
University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart issued the following statement commenting on the life of Miller Williams.
“Miller Williams was an icon among our academic community. He was an amazing teacher and extraordinary writer and poet. His presence was felt across campus and indeed the entire state. Our nation has lost a true talent and an incredible human being. We mourn the loss of this exceptional person who brought joy and light to so many.”
Davis McCombs, director of the creative writing and translation programs at the University of Arkansas, concurred.
“As a poet, a translator, a teacher, Miller Williams helped shape our creative writing program. He established our degree in literary translation–still considered one of the most innovative features of our program–and he brought our university and our state to the national stage. It’s remarkable that this writer–a poet of the local and of the personal–came, in the course of his illustrious career, to speak for the nation. It confirms, I think, the humility and compassion and great resonance of his work to our daily lives. Our program, indeed Arkansas itself, owes much to Miller’s voice and vision.”
As for Miller’s work, one of his best-known poems is “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina.” He was also presented with the National Arts Award for his lifelong contribution to the arts by President Clinton.
His last book, Time and the Tilting Earth, is available from the Louisiana State University Press. RIP, Miller Williams.
Miller Williams Inaugural Poem For Bill Clinton.
Of History and Hope
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands — oh, rarely in a row —
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become —
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit — it isn’t there yet —
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.