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And nothing but the truth

MILLER WILLIAMS has spent a lifetime thinking about poetry. The author of 14 collections, he is professor emeritus of English at the University of Arkansas and served as poet for Bill Clinton’s second presidential inauguration. (He’s also the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, who knows a thing or two about poetry herself.)

In “Making a Poem: Some Thoughts About Poetry and the People Who Write It” (Louisiana State University Press, 128 pp., $18.95 paper), Williams distills this experience with the idea of demystifying poetry. The 14 essays here -- written over the last 40 years -- make a case for poetry as part of the fabric of everyday living, something that speaks to the very core of who we are. As he explains in “The Value of Poetry in a Technological Age”: “There has never been a day when poetry was more important. In a time of high technology, we need more, not less, to be in touch with that part of ourselves we call the human spirit.”

Williams, however, is no Luddite, out of touch with the modern world. No, what he’s after is something far more fundamental: poetry as a way of getting at the truth. In the first (and, I think, finest) essay here, he frames poetry as an animating force, emerging in the least expected places; “In the registration line at the University of Arkansas recently,” he notes, “I heard a young woman ask, ‘Does anyone know who’s taking care of Western Civilization?’ ” This, of course, is not a poem, but it expresses a poetic sentiment, the idea that there is more to things than their surfaces, and that the ability to appreciate these deeper nuances adds meaning to our lives.

“I’m not offering a cure for the world’s ills,” Williams writes, “or pep pills for the despondent, or a way to happiness, but I am committed to the belief that poetry -- as well as painting and sculpture, music and dance and drama -- in a time when we are sometimes tempted to pull away from the world, in a time when there is so much to withdraw from, in a time when we may forget that to be a little bit numb, to be a little anesthetized, is to be a little bit dead, may in a small way help to keep us alive.”

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--David L. Ulin

david.ulin@latimes.com


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