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William Meredith

By Richard Wilbur

Robert Lowell, in praising William Meredith’s book The Open Sea, said that “His intelligent poems, unlike most poems, have a character behind them.” In my experience, that word “character” is seldom used in poetry criticism, but Lowell made good use of it in that tribute, and it puts me in mind of something Bill said in one of his essays. “All the writers who go on concerning us after their deaths,” he wrote, “are men and women who have escaped from a confused human identity into the identity they willed and consented to.” Both in his work and in his person, Bill had an unmistakable identity, a character which he chose to have and be, and about which all who knew him could agree.

He came of good stock, and had some distinguished forebears. That surely pleased him—why shouldn’t it?—but the identity it helped him choose or confirm was that of a modest, affable gentleman whose word could be trusted and whose manners were fine but easy. In one of his recollections of Auden, Bill particularly praises the English poet’s loyalty to his friends, and there are many of us who could testify that that was a quality of Bill’s own. If one strained his patience, it did not break. A visitor to his former New York apartment, stumbling on old copies of the Social Register in his bookshelves, might have guessed wrong about his social attitude: one of the best poems in his second book, entitled “Do Not Embrace Your Mind’s New Negro Friend,” is an urgent attack on prejudice and discrimination, which bids the reader work toward having friends “…[f]rom all the rich races of your human blood.” That again is the theme of the title poem of a later collection, Effort of Speech. A Paris Review interviewer once asked Bill to name his favorite poems by his friend and mentor Robert Frost, and the first poem Bill mentioned was “The Vanishing Red,” a blunt and chilling piece of work in which Frost confronts the horror of race hatred. Bill’s generosity of spirit was not confined to matters of race; as his long-time friend Richard Harteis has said, his politics were “populist” in character.

Bill was a college teacher for almost three decades, and I was always struck by his respect and solicitude for his Connecticut College students. I envied him his knowledgeable delight in music and opera, and he was a good amateur naturalist, especially when it came to trees. It was a pleasure to walk through our Massachusetts woods with him because, as his poem “Roots” would suggest, he knew and cared about what he was walking through, and a good stand of beeches could take his breath away. His translations of Apollinaire seem to me admirable, and in his critical writings there are some wonderfully fresh pieces on Eliot, Roethke, and organic form in A. R. Ammons. He was also a good critic of his friends’ poems, and I frequently asked for his opinion of my new work as it came, certain that there would be no malice, flattery, or evasion in what he said. When he suggested that I change something, it was generally in the direction of the colloquial and plain. My wife and I loved to have him come visiting, and I hope we gave him as much as he gave us: the only thing I’m sure of is that we introduced him to cranberry juice and to the Key West singer Sylvia Shelly, and that both are celebrated in his poems.

Some poets seem to be addressing a rally, or posterity, or the west wind, or a bartender, but Bill Meredith’s poems, almost from the beginning, sound like a civil, witty, and serious man conversing with a few friends. Early and late, he had a quiet mastery of form: he could write a beautiful sestina when his material called for a recirculation of words, and in a poem called “An Old Field Mowed for Appearances’ Sake” he could take on the difficult rhyme-scheme of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods,” and playfully echo Frost here and there, and yet come out with a poem quite his own. When he created a delightful alter ego in his book Hazard, the Painter, his free verse had the authority which can only be got by long and lively work in the meters. Some of the poets of our generation were much given to ranking each other, but he did not too often discuss the poetic pecking order; the closest he came to that was a jocular occasion on which he gave us all grades, awarding me an A minus and himself a modest B plus. I am glad that, in his latter years, a series of tardy distinctions made it clear that Bill was a straight A.

Bill was a brave man who served in two of our country’s wars and made, by his own count, thirty-two night landings on the deck of a carrier. Though well aware of the world’s dreadfulness, he considered this life “a good bind to be in,” and his spokesman Hazard described himself as “in charge of morale in a morbid time.” Bill’s gallantry of spirit was needed when, in 1983, a stroke deprived him of the ready use of words. I want to end these remarks by reading, in honor of his positiveness and pluck, a poem of Bill’s called “The Cheer.”

“The Cheer”

reader my friend, is in the words here, somewhere.
Frankly, I’d like to make you smile.
Words addressing evil won’t turn evil back
but they can give heart.
The cheer is hidden in right words.

A great deal isn’t right, as they say,
as they are lately at some pains to tell us.
Words have to speak about that.
They would be the less words
for saying smile when they should say do.

If you ask them do what?
they turn serious quick enough, but never unlovely.
And they will tell you what to do,
if you listen, if you want that.

Certainly good cheer has never been what’s wrong,
though solemn people mistrust it.
Against evil, between evils, lovely words are right.
How absurd it would be to spin these noises out,
so serious that we call them poems,
if they couldn’t make a person smile.

Cheer or courage is what they were all born in.
It’s what they’re trying to tell us, miming like that.
It’s native to the words,
and what they want us to always know,
even when it seems quite impossible to do.

Read by William Joy Smith at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 6, 2007.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters