Arkansas poet Miller Williams, a prolific writer and teacher who read a poem at President Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration, has died. He was 84.
Williams, the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, died Thursday night (Jan. 1) at a hospital in Fayetteville of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, family friend Linda Sheets said Friday. Williams was a longtime professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
He helped found the university’s publishing arm, the University of Arkansas Press, in 1980, and directed it for almost 20 years. He has written, translated or edited more than 30 books, including a dozen poetry collections, according to the Poetry Foundation.
“He was always willing to read a poem or write a poem if someone asked,” daughter Karyn Williams said. “I just remember people always being at our house, whether it was visiting writers or professors or just people out of luck. He was always willing to give a helping hand.”
Clinton chose his friend to read his poem “Of History and Hope” at the 1997 inauguration, making him just the third inaugural poet.
“We mean to be the people we meant to be, to keep on going where we meant to go,” the poem reads.
Clinton called Williams “one of America’s great poets.”
“I will always be grateful for his friendship, which began in 1973 when we were both teaching at the University of Arkansas, and for his beautiful reading at my second inaugural. His words are as meaningful today as they were nearly 20 years ago,” Clinton said in a written statement.
Williams, who had campaigned for Clinton’s unsuccessful 1974 congressional bid, said in a 2013 interview that he wanted the poem to be a “consideration of how a look at a nation’s past might help determine where it could be led in the future.
“I knew that the poem would be listened to by a great many people, reprinted around the country, and discussed in a lot of classrooms, so I wanted it to be true, understandable, and agreeable,” Williams told the Oxford American magazine in an interview.
University of Arkansas Chancellor David Gearhart praised Miller as “an icon among our academic community,” saying the country had “lost a true talent and an incredible human being.”
Lucinda Williams last year put her father’s poem “Compassion” to music as the lead cut on her latest album. Williams said her father had told her recently that Alzheimer’s disease had robbed him of his ability to write poetry.
“I started crying when he told me that,” she said last year. “I just bawled like a baby. I couldn’t believe it. This was my dad, the poet. It was like someone saying that he couldn’t see anymore. It was part of him that was just gone. It’s like a part of him died. That’s why this is so important to me.”
Along with his two daughters, Williams is survived by his wife, Jordan, and his son, Robert.