Of History and Hope
1997 inaugural poem
by Miller Williams
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands — oh, rarely in a row —
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become —
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
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.
In honor of Joe Biden’s inauguration tomorrow, I wanted to post a poem read at the inauguration of another Democratic president. In 1997, Miller Williams, a poet and the father of the singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, was honored as the country’s third inaugural poet, reading his poem “Of History and Hope” at the start of former President Bill Clinton’s second term.
Williams published, edited, and translated over thirty books. He was born in Hoxie, Arkansas, in 1930, the son of a Methodist clergyman and civil rights activist. Miller’s work is known for its gritty realism as much as for its musicality. Equally comfortable in formal and free verse, Williams wrote poems grounded in the material of American life, frequently using dialogue and dramatic monologue to capture the pitch and tone of American voices.
As a child, Miller Williams seemed to be more gifted in science than in writing. Though he entered college as a double major in English and foreign languages, an aptitude test revealed “absolutely no aptitude in the handling of words,” Miller said in interviews during his lifetime. He changed his major to hard sciences to avoid “embarrassing my parents.” Williams earned a BS in biology from Arkansas State University and an MS in zoology from the University of Arkansas. He taught science at the college level for many years before securing a job in the English department at Louisiana State University, partly with his friend Flannery O’Connor’s help. In an interview, Miller told the story: “We became dear friends, and in 1961, LSU advertised for a poet to teach in their writing program. Though I had only had three hours of freshman English formally, she saw the ad and, without mentioning it to me, wrote them and said the person you want teaches biology at Wesleyan College. They couldn’t believe that, of course, but they couldn’t ignore Flannery O’Connor. So they sent me word that said, ‘Would you send us some of your work?’ And I did.” Williams’s appointment began a long career in academia: as a professor at Loyola University New Orleans, he founded the New Orleans Review; while at the University of Arkansas, where he taught until his retirement in 2003, he founded the University of Arkansas Press, serving as director for twenty years. He also founded the MFA in Translation at the University of Arkansas. A selection of Miller Williams’ papers is archived in the Special Collections at the University of Arkansas library.
Williams collaborated with his daughter Lucinda, and he was compared to another great country musician with the same last name. According to Williams, “One of the best things that has ever been said about my work was said by 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.’” Williams died on January 1, 2015, of Alzheimer’s disease. Sixty-two years earlier, Hank Williams died on his way from Montgomery to a New Year’s Day concert in Canton, Ohio.