The Last Poem I Loved: “Let me tell you” by Miller Williams

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Miller Williams’s “Let me tell you” is a good, but not a great poem. It’s obvious in places, and a bit ham-handed for an ars poetica, but it’s a terrific poem to start beginning students off with, because it illustrates the importance of image when writing a narrative poem, among other things. That’s the reason I know the poem so intimately—because it’s the poem I’ve started my beginning students off with every semester for years. That’s not the reason I love it, though.

Back when I was in Miller’s classes as an MFA student at the University of Arkansas, he would repeat, approximately 6.023 * 1023 times per semester, that “a poem lies its way to the truth.” In “Let me tell you,” he says something similar. After telling the reader that your first job is to “First notice everything” and “memorize it,” he completes the thought with “You cannot twist the fact you do not know.” In other words, facts are only useful as tools to get to your larger truth, and if you have to mangle them a little to get there, that’s fine. The important thing is that you have them to twist.

As an exercise, I’ll have my students list the possibilities that can spring out of one of his examples Williams gives the reader to memorize: “the stain on the wallpaper / of the vacant house.” It usually takes a couple of minutes before they realize that Williams hasn’t told them what kind of stain is on the wall, or why the house is vacant, or that these things matter to the poem, and it takes even longer for them to get that those decisions are the stuff of poetry. They don’t usually realize that every line, every word of a poem, is there because the poet consciously chose that word instead of some other one. They see the poem as the finished product, as an organic whole sprung from the fertile brain of a poet scribbling away, perhaps on a hillside or in a coffee shop somewhere. But detail matters—a bloodstain on the wall will lead to a different poem than a floodwater stain or food stain. The poem will be different if the house is empty because it’s been foreclosed on or was burned out or was never lived in to begin with, a casualty of the most recent housing boom and bust. The students start to nod.

The second stanza illustrates this lesson. Williams writes:

Remember
The blond girl you saw in the bar.
Put a scar on her breast.
Say she left home to get away from her father.
Invent whatever will support your line.
Leave out the rest.

The blonde girl in the bar is the only “fact” in that stanza. Everything else is fiction. But for Williams, that’s the point. You take something that exists and then invent the supporting structure, leaving out anything that’s unnecessary, including other facts. Williams also says later in the poem that “nothing is less important than a fact,” or, don’t let the facts get in the way of your poem. Just because something happened doesn’t mean it has to happen that way in the poem.

All of this is well and good, but it doesn’t come across as love for the poem, or it shouldn’t anyway. Not yet. It’s the way the poem closes that has moved me from “this is a useful tool” to “this is something I will carry for the rest of my life.” The last three stanzas read this way:

When your father lies
in the last light
and your mother cries for him,
listen to the sound of her crying.
When your father dies
take notes
somewhere inside.

If there is a heaven
he will forgive you
if the line you found was a good one.

It does not have to be worth the dying.

My father died earlier this year, on March 2. I learned about it in a voice mail from my sister while I was changing planes in Denver on my way home from the Seattle AWP convention to return to my own family; our newest additions were almost 4 weeks old at the time. It wasn’t a surprise—his health had been poor for years and four days earlier, his doctors had told my sister and mother that he probably wouldn’t last the weekend. After a phone call to my sister and another to my wife, I sat on the floor of the Denver airport near my gate, eating some completely forgettable fast food, and those words echoed in my head.

When your father dies
take notes
somewhere inside.

How do you take notes at a time like that? My relationship with my father had ranged from poor to nonexistent for the last 15 years, ever since I left the church of my youth (the technical term was “disfellowshipped” and it meant my family was supposed to disown me). About a week before he died, I called (at the insistence of my sister), and had a nice conversation with him, the first in years. In fact, we had the same conversation 3 times in 10 minutes (a joke he would have made himself). It offered some closure, and now that he’s gone, I’m glad we had that moment.

If there is a heaven,
he will forgive you
if the line you found was a good one.

My father believed in a heaven, but not that he would be going there. His hope was to be resurrected to perfect health into paradise on earth. The deal remains the same, though–find a good line and he’ll forgive you for mining that part of your experience for your art, rather than keeping it to yourself, intimate to family. But why only a good line?

It does not have to be worth the dying.

My students often puzzle over this line, and until this year, I don’t think I understood it in more than an intellectual way. Williams is pointing out the limits of language here, that because language is descriptive, it can never match the intensity of the moment. The greatest written record of eating a perfectly ripe peach pales next to the experience of biting into it, juice running onto your cheeks despite your desperate slurps. No line of poetry can ever be worth the dying of a parent. But it doesn’t have to.

I’m looking for my line for my father, a good one. I like to think that someday I’ll write it.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →