Miller Williams

b. 1930
Miller Williams

Poet, editor, critic, and translator Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930, the son of a Methodist clergyman and civil rights activist. 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 received 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 Louisiana State University, 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 Masters of Fine Arts in Translation at the University of Arkansas.

Miller’s work is known for its gritty realism as much as for its musicality. Equally comfortable in formal and free verse, Williams writes poems grounded in the material of American life, frequently using dialogue and dramatic monologue to capture the pitch and tone of American voices. 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 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). He is also the author of Making a Poem: Some Thoughts about Poetry and the People Who Write It (2006).

Williams edited Contemporary Poetry in America (1973) and Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms (1986). He also co-edited, with John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean? (1975). He later selected and arranged the poems in Ciardi’s Stations of the Air: Thirty-Three Poems (1993), and has 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.

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. Williams was also chosen to read at the occasion of former President Jimmy Carter’s return from the White House to Plains, Georgia. A selection of Williams’s papers has been archived in the Special Collections at the University of Arkansas library. 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.’”

Career

McNeece 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.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • 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 (Baton Rouge, LA), 2008.

PROSE

  • The Lives of Kelvin Fletcher (short stories), University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 2002.

CRITICISM

  • 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.

AS EDITOR/TRANSLATOR

  • (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.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • 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.

PERIODICALS

  • 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.

Discover this poet’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Articles By MILLER WILLIAMS

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

LIFE SPAN 1930–

Miller Williams

Biography

Poet, editor, critic, and translator Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930, the son of a Methodist clergyman and civil rights activist. 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 received a BS . . .

Report a problem with this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.