Poet, editor, critic, and translator Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930, the son of a Methodist clergyman and civil rights activist. Miller’s work is known for its gritty realism as much as for its musicality. Equally comfortable in formal and free verse, Williams wrote poems grounded in the material of American life, frequently using dialogue and dramatic monologue to capture the pitch and tone of American voices. In 1997 Williams was honored as the country’s third inaugural poet, reading his poem “Of History and Hope” at the start of former President Bill Clinton’s second term. He was the father of the singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams.
As a child, Miller Williams exhibited more ability in science than in writing. Though he entered college as double major in English and foreign languages, an aptitude test revealed “absolutely no aptitude in the handling of words,” Miller has said in interviews. He changed his major to hard sciences to avoid “embarrassing my parents.” Williams earned a BS in biology from Arkansas State University and an MS in zoology from the University of Arkansas. He taught science at the college-level for many years before securing a job in the English department at LSU, partly with the help of his friend Flannery O’Connor. In an interview, Miller told the story: “We became dear friends and in 1961, LSU advertised for a poet to teach in their writing program. Though I had only had three hours of freshman English formally, she saw the ad and, without mentioning it to me, wrote them and said the person you want teaches biology at Wesleyan College. They couldn’t believe that, of course, but they couldn’t ignore Flannery O’Connor. So they sent me word that said, ‘Would you send us some of your work?’ And I did.” Williams’s appointment began a long career in academia: as a professor at Loyola University, he founded the New Orleans Review; while at the University of Arkansas, where he taught until his retirement in 2003, he founded the University of Arkansas Press, serving as director for 20 years. He also founded the MFA in Translation at the University of Arkansas.
Williams has written, translated, or edited over 30 books, including a dozen poetry collections, such as Halfway from Hoxie: New and Selected Poems (1973); Living on the Surface: New and Selected Poems (1989), which received the Poets’ Prize; Some Jazz a While: Collected Poems (1999); and Time and the Tilting Earth (2008). In a review of his collected poems, Some Jazz a While (1999), critic Lee Oser called Williams a poet “of eloquent sanity and distinguished formal competence … a fine observer of the emotional and imaginative lives of his fellow citizens.” In an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth for PBS, Williams noted, “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 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.”
Williams is also the author of Making a Poem: Some Thoughts about Poetry and the People Who Write It (2006). He edited Contemporary Poetry in America (1973) and Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms (1986), and coedited How Does a Poem Mean? (1975) with with John Ciardi and later selected and arranged the poems in Ciardi’s Stations of the Air: Thirty-Three Poems (1993). Williams also translated poetry by Nicanor Parra, Giuseppe Belli, and Pablo Neruda. His many honors include the Henry Bellman Award, the Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Fellowship, a Fulbright professorship at the National University of Mexico, the Prix de Rome for Literature, the Charity Randall Citation for Contribution to Poetry as a Spoken Art, the John William Corrington Award for Literary Excellence, and the National Arts Award.
His daughter is the singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, and Williams himself has been compared to another great country musician. According to Williams: “One of the best things that has ever been said about my work was said by a critic who wrote that ‘Miller Williams is 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.’” Williams died on January 1st, 2015, the same day Hank Williams had died on in 1963. A selection of his papers is archived in the Special Collections at the University of Arkansas library.
McNeese State College, Lake Charles, LA, and Millsaps College, Jackson, MS, biology instructor, intermittently, 1952-60; Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, instructor, 1962-63, assistant professor of English, 1964-66; Loyola University, New Orleans, LA, associate professor of English, 1966-70; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, associate professor, 1971-73, professor of English, 1973—, chair of comparative literature program, 1978-80, co-director of graduate program in creative writing, 1970-84. Visiting professor, University of Chile, 1964; Fulbright professor of American studies, National University of Mexico, 1970. Director, University of Arkansas Press, 1980-97.
- A Circle of Stone, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1964, bilingual edition published as Recital, Ediciones Oceano (Valparaiso, Chile), 1965.
- So Long at the Fair, Dutton (New York, NY), 1968.
- The Only World There Is, Dutton (New York, NY), 1971.
- Halfway from Hoxie: New and Selected Poems, Dutton (New York, NY), 1973.
- Why God Permits Evil: New Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1977.
- Distractions, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1981.
- The Boys on Their Bony Mules, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1983.
- Imperfect Love, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1986.
- Living on the Surface: New and Selected Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1989.
- Adjusting to the Light, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1992.
- Points of Departure, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1995.
- The Ways We Touch, University of Illinois Press (Champaign, IL), 1997.
- Some Jazz a While: Collected Poems, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1999.
- Time and the Tilting Earth: Poems, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2008.
- The Lives of Kelvin Fletcher (short stories), University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 2002.
- The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1972.
- Patterns of Poetry: A Encyclopedia of Forms, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1986.
- Making a Poem: Some Thoughts About Poetry and the People Who Write It, Louisiana University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 2006.
- (Editor) 19 Poetas de Hoy en los EEUU, U.S. Information Service (Valparaiso, Chile), 1964.
- (Editor, with John William Corrington) Southern Writings in the Sixties: Fiction, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1966.
- (Editor, with Corrington) Southern Writing in the Sixties: Poetry, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1967.
- (Translator) Nicanor Parra, Poems and Antipoems, New Directions (New York, NY), 1967.
- (Editor) Chile: An Anthology of New Writing, Kent State University Press (Kent, OH), 1968.
- (Editor) The Achievement of John Ciardi: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems with a Critical Introduction, Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1969.(Translator) Nicanor Parra, Emergency Poems, New Directions (New York, NY), 1972.
- (Editor) Contemporary Poetry in America, Random House (New York, NY), 1973.
- (Editor, with John Ciardi) How Does a Poem Mean?, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1975.
- (Assistant editor, with James Whitehead) All of Us and None of You and Other Original Fiction and Poetry with a Symposium on Book Reviews in America, edited with an introduction by George Garrett, Anchor Press (Garden City, NY), 1975.
- (Editor, with James A. McPherson) Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture, Random House (New York, NY), 1976.
- (Editor) A Roman Collection: Stories, Poems, and Other Good Pieces by the Writing Residents of the American Academy in Rome, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1980.
- (Editor) Ozark, Ozark: A Hillside Reader, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1981.
- (Translator), Giuseppe Belli, Sonnets of Giuseppe Belli, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1981.
- (Selector and arranger) John Ciardi, Stations of the Air: Thirty-Three Poems, BkMk Press (Kansas City, MO), 1993.
Contributor to periodicals, including American Scholar, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Saturday Review, and Shenandoah. Advisory editor in poetry, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge. Poetry editor, Lousiana State University Press, 1966-68; editor, New Orleans Review, 1968-69; contributing editor, Translation Review.
- Broughton, Irv, The Writer's Mind, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1990.
- Burns, Michael, editor, Miller Williams and the Poetry of the Particular, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1991.
- Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 20, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.
- Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 105: American Poets since World War II, second series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
- Jackson, Richard, Acts of Mind: Conversations with Contemporary Poets, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1983.
- Bulletin of Bibliography, December, 1987.
- Choice, October, 1981, review of Distractions.
- Detroit Free Press, January 20, 1997.
- Detroit News, January 20, 1997.
- Dickinson Review, spring, 1973, pp. 5-20.
- Georgia Review, winter, 1994, p. 784.
- Hudson Review, spring, 1993, p. 229; winter, 1998, p. 681.
- Poetry, August, 1998, p. 283.
- Prairie Schooner, winter, 1998, review of Points of Departure, p. 200.
- Publishers Weekly, June 22, 1992, review of Adjusting to the Light, p. 57; January 6, 1997, p. 20; April, 26, 1999, review of Some Jazz a While, p. 78.
- Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, fall, 1979.
- Time, January 20, 1997, p. 18.
- Translation Review, 1990, pp. 32-33.
- Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 1965; winter, 1992, p. 29; summer, 1998, p. 102.
- World Literature Today, winter, 2000, Lee Oser, review of Some Jazz a While, p. 167.
- Writer's Digest, September, 1997, p. 34.
Poems By MILLER WILLIAMS
- A Poem for Emily
- A Short Play
- A Tenth Anniversary Photograph, 1952
- Birth of the Blues
- Evening: A Studio in Rome
More poems by Miller Williams (23 poems)
- For a Girl I Know about to Be a Woman
- For J. W., on His Marriage in the Faith
- For Rebecca, For Whom Nothing Has Been Written Page After Page
- If Ever There Was One
- June Twenty, Three Days After
- Love and How It Becomes Important in Our Day to Day Lives
- Of History and Hope
- On a Trailways Bus a Man Who Holds His Head Strangely Speaks to the Seat Beside Him
- On the Reburial of a Second Lieutenant
- Rebecca at Play
- Tearing Down the Hotel
- The Aging Actress Sees Herself a Starlet on the Late Show
- The Curator
- The Girl
- The Woman in the Room
Articles By MILLER WILLIAMS
- John Ciardi: “A Trenta-Sei of the Pleasure We Take in the Early Death of Keats”
Making the difficult look easy.