Miller Williams’s poetry offers an insightful look at the preoccupations and concerns of his time, from the mundane to the metaphysical, presented with an emphasis on the ordinary and on conversational language. In addition, he so skillfully uses form, meter, and rhyme that the patterns of his poems do not announce themselves. In conversational, straightforward language, his poems include blank verse, sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, dramatic monologues, and other variations of the simple and the intricate. The greatest strength of Williams as a poet may be how natural he makes the most intricate poetic forms sound on the page. As he says in “For All Our Great-Grandchildren”: “If you can listen/ I’ll try to make it not sound like a lesson.” Williams takes as his task seeing the hidden behind the visible and turning it into art. In “Notes from the Agent on Earth: How to Be Human,” he provides a succinct summation of his work: “Life is change that finds a changing pattern;/ art is change we put a pattern to.” While characterizing his wide body of poetry in overall terms proves impossible, several themes recur.
One of the first things one notices in Williams’s work is the humor that plays out in humans’ visions of themselves, in wordplay, and in worldview. Williams has said, “I think of most of my poems as having a touch of dark, hopefully ironic humor about them.” Titles of individual poems exemplify this: “After You Die You Don’t Give a Piddling Damn,” “Why God Permits Evil: For Answer to This Question of Interest to Many Write Bible Answers, Dept. E-7,” “Talking to Himself He Gets a Few Things Settled in His Mind,” “Note to God Concerning an Earlier Communication,” and “In Your Own Words Without Lying Tell Something of Your Background with Particular Attention to Anything Relating to the Position for Which You Are Applying, Press Down.”
Along with the humor provided by the narrators’ and characters’ views of themselves and their world, and what they misunderstand about it, Williams finds humor in wordplay. In “On a Trailways Bus a Man Who Holds His Head Strangely Speaks to the Seat Beside Him,” the speaker tells those around him that “I thanked a woman twice and kissed her hand/ because she said I was a perfect stranger.”
“Style” offers a humorous take on the fads of poetry, describing a man who made a series of circles on a page and decided to call it a poem, “Not wanting to waste the paper or the time” and “having a dean impressed with anything.” The poem succeeds, is anthologized, and creates numerous requests “for explanations he never gives.” The narrator tells the reader that some would call it poetry, “assuming of course that it was done sincerely.”
Williams’s humor, from the line level to the ironic vision of many poems, extends to himself as well. “My Wife Reads the Paper at Breakfast on the Birthday of the Scottish Poet” reads in its entirety: “Poet Burns to Be Honored, the headline read./ She put it down. ’They found you out,’ she said.”
What is left unsaid
Williams once said, “We live life as if it were what we wanted; we read a poem as if it got to the truth of our lives. It never does, but the...
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