Poetry Friday: Miller Williams and the Sestina

I embarked on a consideration of the poetry of the Inland Northwest last time out, but, as often occurs here on Poetry Fridays, events have distracted me and taken me somewhere else this week.  I saw somewhere that Miller Williams had died.  Now, most of you might not be familiar with Miller Williams—he’s a noted but not pop-culture famous American poet of the late 20th Century, who’s probably most well-known, in all honesty, for being father to an award-winning singer/songwriter, Lucinda Williams.  His work touched many, though, and brought him high enough in the esteem of the right ears and eyes that he was asked to write and recite a poem for the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton, in 1997.  Miller was a clear-thinking and tough-speaking poet, often, and according to the Poetry Foundation’s bio of him, he always felt that the best praise he ever got was “a critic who wrote that ‘Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.’” I think that’s fair.

The reason I knew and loved Miller’s work really centered around one particular poem of his, “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”. The reason for it is that, each December and January of my teaching career, I taught a mini-unit on poetry. Some of the all-time classics, some poems by friends of mine, some stuff I suspected most of the sophomores wouldn’t get and some stuff I dearly hoped most, if not all, of them would. One of the things I wanted to show them was the dazzling array of poetic forms, and the most fiendishly challenging and clockwork-clever of them is the sestina. It’s a tricky form to even understand—it abandons meter, and focuses on a small set of six words, which dance along the right margin of the poem like it’s the Virginia Reel, spinning, changing partners, always there but never in the same place. You can follow the link a couple sentences back to the Wikipedia entry explaining the exact pattern—how each of the six line stanzas uses the same six words to end each line, but how no word is ever at the end of the same line twice (that is, the word that ends the first line of the first stanza will end the second line of the second stanza and the fourth line of the third stanza, and so on for each of these six special sestina words). Now, because a sestina has to keep coming back to the same six words, most sestinas end up feeling a little silly. They can never move on from the topic at hand, and by the fourth or fifth stanza it often can feel like the poet has said all they have to say, leaving us irritated and bored. A neat device, you may think—catchy at first, but ultimately more a set of rules that prevent you from writing a decent poem than enabling you to.

But not Miller Williams. He had the genius notion that the sestina is an engine of great emotional power, structured in such a way that, in the hands of an artist and a passionate human being, can punch us in the heart and the head at just the right moment, and leave us wiser. At least that’s what I think. Because every year, no matter what else won the acclaim of each crew of sophomores, I could always count on them falling just a little bit in love with Miller Williams, and “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”:

Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home,
a dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time
to keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come
to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
to where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fallen to.

What the bubble always points to,
whether we notice it or not, is home.
It may be true that if you move fast
everything fades away, that given time
and noise enough, every memory goes
into the blackness, and if new ones come—

small, mole-like memories that come
to live in the furry dark—they, too,
curl up and die. But Carol goes
to high school now. John works at home
what days he can to spend some time
with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

Ellen won’t eat her breakfast.
Your sister was going to come
but didn’t have the time.
Some mornings at one or two
or three I want you home
a lot, but then it goes.

It all goes.
Hold on fast
to thoughts of home
when they come.
They’re going to
less with time.

Time
goes
too
fast.
Come
home.

Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.
A myth goes that when the years come
then you will, too. Me, I’ll still be home.

That damn sixth stanza. It makes me cry every time. I don’t think I have to tell you why or how this works. It will move each of us in different ways, and show us different sides of love and of loss. I just wanted you to know it existed, and that there existed, too, a man named Miller Williams who wrote something that will live far beyond his mortal body. I bless him and these words of his.

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