Another Miller Williams Article

Written by Ben Pollock Jr. – He talks about having Miller as a neighbor as well as a mentor. Very good!!

Losing My Neighbor Miller Williams

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.

• • •

The documentary series "Men & Women of Distinction" of the Arkansas Educational Television Network featured poet Miller Williams. The half-hour video was premiered in November 2010 at the University of Arkansas Global Campus auditorium in Fayetteville. Afterward, Williams was congratulated during a reception and posed for pictures. Here, Ben Pollock (from left), Christy Pollock, Miller Williams, Crescent Dragonwagon and Amy Wilson. Photo by Dwain Cromwell

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.”

• • •

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.”

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.)

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

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