News & History

HISTORY MINUTE: Williams among most celebrated Arkansan writers

By KENNETH BRIDGES | For The Arkadelphian

One critic called him “the Hank Williams of American poetry,” which Miller Williams took to be the highest compliment. Miller Williams, a Hoxie native, was one of the most celebrated writers to come from Arkansas.

Born in 1930, the family moved often. His father, a Methodist minister, brought the family from parish to parish, helping implant the love of words in the younger Williams along the way. He graduated from high school in 1947 in Fort Smith and drifted from college to college, alternately attending Hendrix College, Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas), and Arkansas State University. He was initially discouraged from an English major by an aptitude test that said he had no aptitude in the handling of words. Instead, he went into science.

He earned his degree in biology at Arkansas State and a masters degree in zoology at the University of Arkansas. His teaching career as a biology instructor began at McNeese State University in Louisiana in 1952 and took him to Millsaps College in Mississippi and Wesleyan College in Georgia.

Nevertheless, he dabbled with poetry and short stories, publishing a collection of poems called Et Cetera in 1952. He soon drew the attention of poets around the country, earning the Henry Bellman Award in 1957 and the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference Fellowship in 1961.

With the help of friends in the literary world, he secured a position in the Louisiana State University English Department in 1962. By 1966, he was a professor at Loyola University. But in 1970, he returned to the University of Arkansas as a professor of English, specializing in creative writing.

Williams also received a Fulbright Professorship and the New York Arts Fund Award in 1970. He continued writing, including his poetry collections The Only World There Is (1971), Halfway from Hoxie (1973) and the ambitious Why God Permits Evil (1977). Distractions followed in 1981, along with Imperfect Love in 1986.

His 1986 textbook, Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms, came to be an important work on the exploration of modern poetry. He once said of poetry that “the best poetry is or involves a contest between ordinary conversation and ritual.” He also commented, “The poet lies to tell the truth,” commenting on using exaggeration to create an image for the reader.

In 1980, he and a number of university professors founded the University of Arkansas Press. The U of A Press has since published dozens of ground-breaking books on the history of Arkansas and the South as well as lively biographies and indispensable textbooks. Williams served as director for two decades. He also created the masters degree in translation at the university, himself having translated several renowned books of poetry from Spanish to English.

In 1991, he received the Poet’s Prize for Living on the Surface and the National Arts Award in 1997.

In 1997, he recited “Of History and Hope” at President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration. He spoke of the connection between history and the future and the promise of hope in children: “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.”

Some Jazz a While was published in 1999. Williams retired from the University of Arkansas in 2003; but well into his 70s he continued to write. His reflections on the art of poetry, Making a Poem: Some Thoughts About Poetry and the People Who Write It, was completed in 2006. His last book, Time and the Tilting Earth, was published in 2009. The University of Arkansas honored him the creation of the Miller Williams Award for poetry, and in 2009, with the Porter Prize for Lifetime Achievement.

In his later years, his brilliant mind faded, eroded by the ravages of Alzheimers Disease. He passed away in Fayetteville on New Year’s Day 2015, surrounded by loved ones and praised for his literary gifts.

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  1. In a sense, Miller Williams’ gift for prose lives on through the music of his daugher, Lucinda Williams, a fairly well-known singer-songwriter.