Of course I’d known of him, Miller Williams. In the 1990s, living in Little Rock, I was relearning how to read verse. He was an Arkansas poetry icon, along with Maya Angelou and John Gould Fletcher. We claim a good share of songwriters as well. Miller died Jan. 1, 2015, at age 84.
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In early 1999, My Beloved and I found our offer accepted on a 1961 house in Fayetteville, under a mile northwest of the University. The owners, Jake and Carol, were moving to a condo in town, he having retired as an agriculture professor. We came over to meet them. The women talked, and Jake led me out the front door. Leaning against the iron railing of the narrow porch, Jake pointed across the street. “Aren’t you a word guy, since you work in newspapers?” Jake asked. “You ever heard of Miller Williams? That’s his house.”
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A few weeks later, I’m climbing down from the attic, whose door is in the carport’s ceiling, where I’d been storing now-empty boxes. A balding man with a trim gray beard is standing there. I jump. “I didn’t mean to startle you, I’m Miller. We live kiddy-cornered from you. Jordan thought you could use these. [It was a paper plate of homemade cookies and two cold sodas.] We didn’t know what you liked so I chose a can of Coke and one a Sprite. Come over anytime. We have wine about 5.”
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Sundays after 5 was the Williamses’ regular “at home” (for a few relatives and friends). In recent years we always were served a modest pinot grigio, cold from the fridge, and gourmet crackers. We barely went a few times a year. It seemed more a time for them to enjoy their grown grandchildren, and we were reluctant to intrude. We half-dozen filled their enclosed sunporch. Miller would note for any newcomer that Jimmy Carter “sat in that chair” when he was in town for Miller to edit one of his early books, and “we always put Bill and Hillary on that sofa.” One long wall of Miller’s small study (I asked for a tour) was filled with books, of course, and a few knickknacks. Turns out he loved turtles, like me, with a few figurines of them on the shelves.
A cribbage board sat there. He too loved cribbage, but we never played. But he relished my John Ciardi story. The late poet, who taught alongside him at UA, had been a regular commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition. On one of those I heard Ciardi say, “Life is only a game. It’s not like it were cribbage.” I had inscribed that with a Sharpie on the side of my board, which I showed Miller the next time he and Jordan came over.
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We entertain rarely. Yet the Williamses accepted every party invitation, walking over near the start and staying a half-hour or so. Our other guests loved their company. One time they came late. His daughter Lucinda was flying in for a few days around Christmas with her fiance, in between concert dates, and icy weather delayed her flight. Of course we invited them. She was frazzled and exhausted, essentially silent after the ordeal, but the four sat in our living room — Lucinda and her dad sharing the loveseat — and had wine with our guests for a little while.
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After my September 2001 newspaper layoff, I earned a master’s in journalism at the University of Arkansas. Its requirements included taking courses in a related field. I chose the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation, which Miller co-founded in the English department, so I could learn from Miller, Ellen Gilchrist and Molly Giles. I took his Form and Theory of Poetry in fall 2002.
Miller turns out to have been — in a formal class if not a workshop format — a traditional lecturer, at least in his final years before retirement. He spoke precisely from detailed notes, careful to not deviate from them, yet took all questions, answering concisely. He used his own Patterns of Poetry, 1986, as a textbook and handed out photocopies of a wide variety of poems. (Miller’s wonderful essay collection Making a Poem, 2007, includes some key points of his lectures.)
The notes obviously were honed from decades of fine-tuning, yet as with any professor surprises happened. Essentially the entire class blew a quiz: we all made Cs or worse. He looked so disappointed in us. I don’t know what happened; maybe he skipped a section or two of his outline and we resorted to guessing. I recall he then found an old test and gave it to us as a makeup. (My course grade was an A.)
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Other than that, MB and I endeavored to be good neighbors of good neighbors and not neighbors of near-celebrities. A few times a week for 15 years, Miller and I would wave as we got the mail or brought out or hauled back our garbage and recycling. If we wanted to say more we had to meet in mid-street as our four ears were shot. He always recognized me, even this past year, but it was obvious he didn’t necessarily remember my name.
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AT&T has not yet deleted the June 13, 2014, voicemail from Miller on my cell (transcribed below for posterity). He was responding to my email announcement that days earlier the UA journalism department had hired me as assistant director for its new Center for Ethics in Journalism. Much later when the iPhone finally beeped me with the message, I dialed their house and got Jordan. Presuming his infirmity, I thanked her for Miller’s call.
It turns out he was having a good day. He then emailed me: “I know that you got my phone message, Ben; this one comes to tell you again how proud we are to know you and be your friends! Miller”
Yeah, I kick myself for not asking for him directly on the telephone.
Because that was it.
“Ben, this is Miller. I wanted to-to-to thank you for the email and to congratulate you. We’re proud of you. Have a good day. Bye-bye.”
Copyright 2015 Ben S. Pollock Jr.