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Verse for a nation Poet: Miller Williams coupled eloquence with controlled idealism on Inauguration Day. He keeps the future and his art in perspective.


Miller Williams, this year's inaugural poet, writes about the way people feel. He reports on the quieter emotions, the conventional ones that last longer and run deeper than most people think. He writes lucidly about these matters. He is often personal, but not sentimental.

Yesterday, from the steps of the Capitol in Washington, he read a new poem, written for the occasion of the second inauguration of his friend, Bill Clinton. These lines, under the title, "Of History and Hope," spoke of the future with none of the inflated certainty that such grand occasions as presidential inaugurations tend to stimulate in poets and politicians alike. Rather self-effacingly, Williams asked:

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.

Williams is a genial man who speaks in the soft cadences of the Ozarks. He is balding and bespectacled, with a spade-shaped beard the color of ashes. Yesterday, he stood beneath the flamboyant and feminine Statue of Freedom rising above the Capitol's dome and read his words, his intention evident on his face, his determination to launch his thoughts into the minds of the millions waiting to hear them, to embed their beauty in the future.

He lives in Fayetteville, Ark. He is a poet of considerable success, owner of a stack of awards for his art (including the Amy Lowell Award in Poetry), author of 26 books, most of them on poetry.

In America, the poet who can live on the earnings from his verse is rare, maybe nonexistent. Williams makes his living as director of the University of Arkansas' press. He's also had a career as a professor of English and foreign languages at that institution. Impecuniousness seems to be the poet's lot worldwide, though poetry as a calling is generally more esteemed beyond these shores. Why?

"In most other countries poetry is thought of as a manly art," says Williams. "We are still living to a great degree with a frontier, or John Wayne, mentality. What that means is, if it's not useful, it's not worth anything -- useful in the most direct sense of solving a problem at hand.

"For something to be useful to the spirit is not very valuable to get your covered wagon across the desert. We have adopted that attitude so thoroughly that any American father whose son tells him he wants to write poetry will be embarrassed."

Historically, American presidents have been either embarrassed by or simply indifferent to poetry. At least they have rarely called for it at the moment when their electoral triumphs were being confirmed.

John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost to read at his inaugural. It was a bitter cold day, as yesterday was, and the wind tugged at the pages of his composition. Maya Angelou composed and read "On the Pulse of Morning" at Clinton's first inaugural. Miller Williams is the third poet to compose and read a new poem at a presidential swearing-in, though the Southern writer Walker Percy read at one of Jimmy Carter's inaugural dinners.

So far, no Republican president has called upon a poet to memorialize in verse his ascent to power. This says nothing about Republicans or Democrats, of course, though it might explain why John Wayne was a Republican.

Being invited to compose and read his poetry to the nation pleased Miller Williams. He said he hoped "it may do something to elevate poetry in the public mind."

The poet likes to work at night. "About 11," he said, "with one of [John] Coltrane's slower pieces, a little bourbon and water -- and I mean a little. That will start the synapses firing."

He likes jazz. There are allusions to it in his work. "Jazz is very important," he says. "It's not something I can put my finger on. When I'm writing at my favorite time I like to have the gentle side of Coltrane or Brubeck on the CD player. It creates sort of a spiritual space in which I write best."

He wrote an essay once in which he likened country music and blues to conversation, classical music to the voice of God, and jazz to prayer.

His eldest child, Lucinda Williams, is a singer and writer of country music, who won a Grammy Award last year. His younger daughter, Karyn, is a nurse at a hospital in the Virgin Islands, and his son, Robert, drives 18-wheelers and plays jazz piano in New Orleans.

The saxophone is the poet's preferred instrument. He likes to hear it. He played it in college, as a member of a "moderately successful jazz group."

Williams was born in Hoxie, Ark, 66 years ago. He has lectured in Europe, Asia and Latin America. He has lived and taught poetry in Chile and Mexico. He has translated the verse of Chilean poet Nicanor Parra from the Spanish and Giuseppe Belli from the Italian.

His own favorites are John Donne, Emily Dickinson, Howard Nemerov and John Ciardi.

His technique for calling his muse forth is somewhat haphazard. No sitting himself at his desk for a requisite number of hours, determined to knock out this or that many lines. Discipline may not be so helpful to the poet as, say, happenstance, or the aesthetic acuity to seize and make do with whatever might present itself to his mind.

"I respond to mood. I hear some phrase, or pick up a rhythm," he says. "I always have pen and paper with me. When I'm working on an occasional poem (such as yesterday's, a poem written expressly for a ceremonial occasion), they have to be done differently.

"But after a while you learn to find that room in your mind where the words are most likely to come together."

He said this in an interview on Jan. 12, at which time he had almost, but not quite, finished the lines he read yesterday for Bill Clinton and the rest of us. He put it in culinary terms: "If you have everything in the soup but the salt, you may be almost done, but the soup's not worth a damn without it."

Yesterday we got the whole soup, salt and all.

'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.

Pub Date: 1/21/97

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