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Everything important I know about poetry and writing and literature came from Millsaps College, and mostly from Greg Miller. There is really no better place on earth to learn about writing than Jackson, Mississippi. The rest of the country might like to pretend that the deep South is a backwater, but it is, in fact, the cultural heart of America. It is an unpleasant truth to have to acknowledge that because like many things American, our cultural heart is deeply flawed and sometimes ugly.

In Jackson, Mississippi, I took Introduction to Interpretation from Greg Miller, an introductory, required course for English majors. It was there I read for the first time William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Robert Browning, T.S. Eliot. In fact, many of the poems I’ve posted come straight out of my textbook for that class, which I still have. There is probably no one better to teach you to love poetry than a poet himself.

I was a little in love with Greg Miller. I carried a picture stolen from the yearbook office around with me. I was in love with the energy and the passion he brought to teaching. I was in love with how nervous he seemed sometimes. I was in love with the fact that once in class when I got mouthy, he made me come lead discussion. As I have discovered over and over again in the intervening years, it was a lot harder than it looked, being the one in front of the classroom.

So today a poem by a person who taught me to love teaching and poetry and writing in general.

 

 

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BY GREG MILLER

We pass the straits of the Cape
where grazing whales gather,
though they’re not, I’m told, social
creatures by nature.
iron wheel greg millerAlice asks how they can sleep
if they must think to breathe.
Cranial hemispheres wink and wake
and alternate,
so whales are half-awake
and half-asleep, balanced between each
of our states
through dive and breach.
Once on the kitchen wall
of a dune shack I saw,
like a headdress,
the baleen of a whale—
frayed filaments
run from a thin,
curled, rib-like bone:
sieves for the sea.
Like this sickle-moon fin
“negatively buoyant”
I sink in sleep,
but end, I think, where I begin.
Following one as it leaves
two other whales we see
suddenly not what we’re heading for
but the asymmetrically
colored snout of a fin whale
as it rises parallel
within a stone’s
throw of the boat,
the great eye set back
water crashing rushing
to let me see where it ought to be.
I lose track,
the mottled chin’s marble
veined, swirling
through its green veil, which
the top jaw slits.
And then, that’s it,
I think. Nights I’m thrown
upright from my rest. Brine
thumps my chest.

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Comments

  1. Oh, goodness. This post took me back. I loved Greg Miller, too. Though it surprises me to learn that you had a required course as an English major that I never had to take, and there’s only one year that separated us at Millsaps, right?

    It’s been a long time since I opened Iron Wheel, so maybe it’s time to revisit some poetry in my life.

    Jackson, MS. One has to reconcile a lot with that town, but its cultural and literary heritage cannot be denied.

    • Maybe I was wrong about it being required, Emily. Maybe I just took the class because I loved Greg so much. Howard Pickett was in that class and he was also something of a trouble-maker, intellectually speaking. It was a great class, though, and I could still tell you which room it was in.

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