Reading poetry is one of the ways some of us nourish our faith, a way we set or reset our inner compass and stay focused on the big picture, on the spiritual journey. I know that is true for me. ‘Setting the Inner Compass’, is a column where I share poems that I find meaningful and hope others do as well.
The two poems this August come from Miller Williams. Miller Williams was born in Hoxie, Arkansas in 1930, the son of a Methodist clergyman and civil rights activist. He published over 25 books and received numerous poetry awards. In 1997, Williams was the country’s third inaugural poet, reading his poem “Of History and Hope” at the start of Bill Clinton’s second term. I discovered his work through the music of his daughter Lucinda Williams. Miller Williams once said, “One of the best things that has ever been said about my work was said by a critic who wrote that ‘Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.’” That made me smile.
I found the first poem “Catch with Ruben” in the anthology, Heart of the Order: Baseball Poems (Persea Books, 2014). The poem is about baseball and more than baseball and about baseball. I thought of this poem during the special MLB ‘Field of Dreams’ game in Iowa with its emphasis on the history of baseball and the bond between parent and child (The film and broadcast talked about fathers and sons; I want to expand that a little bit). I like the image of playing catch across a generation. It makes me think of intergenerational connections, about sharing faith generation to generation. In a world where there is often generational division, the simplicity of having a ‘catch’, in one way or another, is about finding a simple and basic way to connect.
Miller William’s daughter Lucinda made the second poem into a song and it is on her record, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone (2014). The poem is simple and powerful. It reminds me of my dear friend, my brother from another mother, Bill Sims Jr. Bill was a great Grammy nominated blues musician who died in 2019. He wrote the music for Lackawanna Blues which opens on Broadway this fall. One of his favorite sayings was: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Amen brother Bill, Amen.
Enjoy the rest of summer. Be kind and find someone younger to have a catch with, in one way or another.
“Catch” with Ruben by Miller Williams
You took for gospel what I said,
holding the glove
in just the way I said you should.
Knowing I never could teach you enough,
I thought that when you understood
how carelessly moments disappear,
your mind might hold, from a distant year,
a fading day and us still here.
No matter that your legs are short,
Your arms are small,
It will all be right in time.
This arm that never threw a ball
Far enough to make a team
If more than nine came out to play
Threw one into your hand today
From nearly sixty years away.
“Compassion” by Miller Williams
Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems like conceit,
bad manners or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
Down there where the spirit meets the bone.
“Catch with Reuben”: From Some Jazz a While: Collected Poems. Copyright 1999 by Miller Williams. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.
“Compassion”: From The Ways We Touch: Poems. Copyright 1997 by Miller Williams. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.
Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator/host of Blues Vespers, one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos and former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA. He serves on the PCUSA Education Roundtable. (firstname.lastname@example.org).