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Memorial: William Meredith

Letter from Janet Gezari

William began teaching at Connecticut College in 1955. In the mid 1960s, when Upward Bound programs were a fresh idea, he founded and taught in the college’s first program for low-income inner city high school students. He taught here until his retirement in 1983, after a stroke that immobilized him for two years and left him with lasting expressive aphasia. It was difficult for those of us who knew him before the stroke to fix the boundaries between what he understood and what he could say, although it often appeared that his apprehension of the world remained full and satisfying, and that only his capacity to articulate it was affected. I can remember afternoons in Uncasville, in the early years after the stroke, when I, several of my colleagues, and other friends took turns reading poetry to William and helping him with the exercises in the speech manuals provided for his rehabilitation. If I missed a word in a poem or put the stress in the wrong place, he would stop me; meanwhile, the manuals had him reciting simple commands using the smallest number of linguistic units. The irony of his situation did not escape his notice, but it never diminished his resolve. Those who knew him after the stroke will remember his courage in the face of obstacles and his determined optimism about his progress.

Those of us fortunate enough to know William before the stroke know the magnitude of his loss, and ours. William was consummately articulate, and his conversation was one of the highest pleasures of his company. His letters, typed on his old manual machine if he was at home or handwritten if he was traveling, spoke about cadged meals, boozy evenings with friends, and the cornus alternifolia he thought you ought to have in your garden. He told wonderful stories and liked elaborate jokes. He was effortlessly and often savagely witty. His judgment of language was impeccable and accounts in part for his centrality to the world of American poetry. William knew all the poets, and several of his more celebrated contemporaries—Robert Penn Warren, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell—relied on his responses to their poems and drafts of poems.

His criticism was always discriminating, regardless of whether its object was the work of a student or an established poet. Once, when William was out of town and needed some information for preparing his taxes, he asked me to get some papers for him from his office files. While locating them, I noticed a file of his correspondence on behalf of the Yale Review, where he was poetry editor. Thinking he wouldn’t mind or lapsing from my usual respect for privacy, I looked inside. Although the practice was, even then, to send curt rejection letters, William had taken the time to write a real letter to each of the poets whose submission he was declining to publish. The letters were careful, detailed, and stringent. They took each poem and each poet seriously. They had taken who knows how much time and effort to write. They were another instance of his high courtesy.

While he was at Connecticut College, William saw to it that poetry was a part of life. Everyone came to New London to give readings. Afterwards, there were long dinners in Uncasville where conversation flowed as generously as the drinks did. William was most himself when he was hosting one of these dinners. He believed that food was meant to be served, and served with love. He wasn’t particular about what we ate but he was very particular about how we did it. Stacking the dishes when you helped to clear the table was never permitted. During the thirteen years I was William’s colleague, I don’t remember his taking a sabbatical, but when he did take time away to teach at Carnegie Mellon or to perform his duties at the Library of Congress, he would produce his substitute. I remember all of these replacements well because they made extraordinary contributions to the life of the English department and the college. Blanche Boyd was one; the others were a former student and widely published writer of historical fiction, Cecilia Holland; Robert Hayden, who had preceded William as Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress; the playwright Romulus Linney; and the short story writer, James Alan MacPherson.

It was a mark of William’s humility that his own poetry readings always combined a few of his poems with a larger number of poems written by others. He had no truck with grade inflation, and he used a teacher’s shorthand when he described himself as a B+ poet who had written a few A plus poems. One of these A plus poems was “Parents,” which William wrote after a Thanksgiving dinner at my house in 1975. What it must be like to have so observant a poet at the table we can all imagine. How sharply, and how humanely, he observed the habits of new parents bringing together their own parents and introducing friends with whom their relations were not so long but perhaps as deep, though outside the covenant of generation. Two years earlier, my then husband and I had staged a small dinner for William on the occasion of his fifty-fourth birthday. I still have the thank you note he sent us, written on a printed invitation to Norman Mailer’s black-tie fiftieth birthday benefit at the Four Seasons. “I am not ungrateful for the unpretentious little gathering you had for me Saturday,” William wrote, “but this is the kind of thing I really had in mind—“ He had underscored the invitation’s nod to Mailer’s prominence: “On which occasion he will make an announcement of national importance (major).” At the bottom, there was this closing: “do you think you could get it together for 1974? love, William.”

No one could have fought harder against death than he did, and this was entirely consistent with the life he had led and the poems he had written. He felt himself bound to continue, whether he was flying a mission for the Navy or composing a sestina. He feared cowardice more than other terrors, but he also felt grateful for the beauty of the universe and never stopped being conscious of its particular kindness to him. A poem titled “John and Anne” takes John Berryman’s words about Anne Frank as its epigraph: “the hardest challenge, let’s say, that a person can face without defeat is the best for him.” Just outside the door to William’s house in Uncasville, there was a tamarack tree that had been savagely cropped by an oil truck. He liked to point out that the accident had made the tree thrive as it never could have otherwise.

William Meredith was the least suicidal poet of his generation. His last book of new poems, published a few years before his stroke, was titled The Cheer, an improbable title for any poet but William. The first poem in the book, a kind of envoi, goes like this:

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

By cheer William means morale or confidence or, better still, courage, with its etymological connections to heart. He wanted us to be heartened, even though—or perhaps because—we live in “a culture in late imperial decline.” The Cheer, written during the Vietnam war, includes a poem in which the poet presents himself as a “mild-spoken citizen” and respectfully accuses his country’s president of “criminal folly.” “A man’s mistakes,” the poem slyly notes, “his worst acts,/ aren’t out of character, as he’d like to think.” The Cheer includes several elegies, wry and celebratory poems written in memory of Lowell, Hemingway, Plath, Berryman, and Shelley. William dreamed and imagined death over and over. The elegy had been an important kind of poem for him since at least “The Wreck of the Thresher,” which he wrote to commemorate “a squad of brave men” who died at sea in 1963. If his career as a wartime pilot, someone who faced death down daily, provides one important context for his struggle to survive after his stroke, the too short lives of the poets he loved, past and present, provide the other.

In “Talking Back (To W. H. Auden),” William rejects Auden’s idea (in his elegy for W. B. Yeats) that “poetry makes nothing happen.” “What it makes happen is small things,” his poem says. William’s highest aspiration as a poet was always spiritual, but he was never solemn. He agreed with Frost that “all the fun’s in how you say a thing.” His most memorable poems enable us to see the most forgettable things newly and to be changed by what we’ve seen. In one of Tom Stoppard’s plays, there’s a sentence honoring the effort at speech that defined William’s life: “If you get the right [words] in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.”


The William Meredith Foundation, Inc.
337 Kitemaug Road
Uncasville, Ct. 06382
Tel: 860-961-5138

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