William Meredith, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Imagine being a man for whom language is everything, and then, suddenly losing the ability to speak or write. That's what happened to the poet William Meredith at 1983 when a stroke left him immobilized. At the time, William Meredith has recently completed his tenure as the nation's poet laureate. He worked for years to regain his words and he did, though, he never wrote again. But with help, he continued to refine his poems and they went on to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
William Meredith died in New London, Connecticut, this week at the age of 88. To remember him, we spoke with Michael Collier, his student, friend and sometime editor. He read one of Meredith's poems, typically sparing in language, full in form. It's called a major work.
Mr. MICHAEL COLLIER (Director, Breadloaf Writer's Conference): Poems are hard to read. Pictures are hard to see. Music is hard to hear and people are hard to love. But whether from brute need or divine energy, at last, mind, eye and ear and the great sloth heart will move.
ELLIOTT: William Meredith was moved by his own experiences in World War II and he published his first book of poems in 1944. I asked Michael Collier to describe his style.
Mr. COLLIER: William has one of the best ears of 20th-century poets. He heard language with a perfect pitch. And even the war poems, the tone is reticent. There's a kind of holding back, which makes the emotional urgency behind them even more powerful. Now the later work is a little freer and it's not quite free verse. He would always work with some, kind of, pattern, even if it was just counting syllables. I remember one time him saying to me that free verse was going to be death of him as a poet.
ELLIOTT: He liked the structure.
Mr. COLLIER: He liked the structure because one of the things about William is, you know, he's one of the most decorous, almost chivalrous of people. And form with a way of containing the emotional content for him. And this also extended into his life, you know.
Gee, I can remember just all the times since his stroke in 1993 even times when he - it was difficult for him to get himself up by himself from a chair. If someone else walked into the room, especially if a woman walked into the room, he would get up to recognize her. And manners - for him were true things. They weren't decorations of any kind.
ELLIOTT: As a young man in 1971 you sought out William Meredith. He was teaching for decades at Connecticut College. What was it that you were searching for and why him?
Mr. COLLIER: I Velcroed myself to William and he took me on. He was a good heart teacher and he gave a human model of what it could be to be a poet. He took his role as citizen poet with a real importance and seriousness. He was a very complicated man too. Part of his complications had to do with the fact that he found himself, if he would characterize himself, in charge of morale in a morbid time, he really found that his - or believed that his role as a poet was to keep the flame lit, to make people optimistic, even though he himself had huge areas of darkness that he was battling.
ELLIOTT: I understand that after William Meredith's stroke in 1983, you and other friends would actually read his poems back to him.
Mr. COLLIER: It was part of his speech therapy, really. The poet Henry Taylor, William's friend, William Barrette, and William's partner, Richard Harteis, all of us would spend the afternoons helping William read his poems, and at the same time, editing the poems according to his dictate.
ELLIOTT: Is there a particular William Meredith poem that you would like to share with us today?
Mr. COLLIER: Well, I think, really, one of his greatest poems is a poem called "Parents".
(Reading) What it must be like to be an angel or a squirrel, we can imagine sooner. The last time we go to bed good, they are there lying about darkness. They dandle us once too often, these friends who become our enemies. Suddenly, one day, their juniors are as old as we yearn to be. They get wrinkles where it is better smooth, odd coughs and smells. It is grotesque how they go on loving us; we, go on loving them. The effrontery barely imaginable of having caused us and of how.
Their lives, surely, we can do better than that. This goes on for a long time. Everything they do is wrong, and the worse thing, they all do it is to die. Taking with them the last explanation, how we came out of the wet sea or wherever they got us from, taking the last link of that chain with them. Father, mother, we cry, wrinkling to our uncomprehending children and grandchildren.
This is so characteristic of William. One of his geniuses was friendship. And this is a poem he wrote after being the guest at a Thanksgiving dinner of some young friends of his whose parents were also at the dinner. And I remember one of the things he said about this poem is that it's inevitable that we always find our parents tacky somehow, and so we're apologetic - we're constantly apologizing for them. And I think this is a poem that tries to equalize that ground and to show us how, in fact, we're all involved in this kind of dance - terrifying dance of the generations.
ELLIOTT: I'm struck by the parallel to your own role after his stroke, as you read his poems back to him.
Mr. COLLIER: You know, it's odd how we find ourselves in positions, positions we don't want to be in, but also, I suppose, gratifying to be able to help be the voice for someone who has given you so much, who has given you a voice of some kind.
ELLIOTT: Michael Collier is the director of the Breadloaf Writer's Conference in Vermont. His friend and mentor, William Meredith, died this week at the age of 88.
Thank you so much for sharing with us.
Mr. COLLIER: Thank you. I'm so glad that William's poems will be heard by some of your listeners.
(Soundbite of music)
ELLIOTT: Coming up, a look at the news in iambic pentameter. Stay near thy radio.
This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.