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Vassar Miller has been considered an accomplished poet since her first volume appeared in 1956. Praised by such colleagues as Denise Levertov, Howard Nemerov, James Wright, and Larry McMurtry, her poems have appeared in nine published collections, hundreds of periodicals, and more than fifty anthologies. The defining characteristics of Miller’s poetry are clarity, precision, intelligence, honesty, and tenacity.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Overcoming a Disability
Vassar Miller was born on July 19, 1924, in Houston, Texas, to Jesse Gustavus Miller, an important Houston real-estate developer, and Vassar Morrison Miller. The young Miller was born with cerebral palsy. Because her mother died when Miller was only a year old, her stepmother became the dominant female influence in her life. Miller began writing at the age of eight when her father brought home a typewriter, a mechanical aid of profound importance for one afflicted with her disorder.
From her early youth, when a maid took her to evangelistic meetings in a tent, Miller was deeply religious. Despite her formidable physical handicap, she persevered academically and secured a good education in Houston schools. With the assistance and encouragement of her stepmother, she learned to read, attended junior and senior high school, and earned a BS (1947) and an MA (1952) from the University of Houston. For the master’s degree she wrote, significantly for her later creative work, a thesis on mysticism in the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson. She later became an instructor in creative writing (1975-1976) at St. John’s School in Houston.
A Long and Productive Literary Career
Because of the appreciation for Miller’s work in Houston, the Wings Press was founded as a vehicle for the publication and distribution of her work. During her forty-year literary career, Miller published ten volumes of poetry, all of which were collected in 1991 under the title If I Had Wheels or Love. In addition to numerous poems, she has published several short stories, many book reviews, and an anthology of poems and stories about disabled persons, Despite This Flesh (1984).
Notwithstanding her physical handicap, Miller traveled to Europe and elsewhere. Nor did a speech impediment associated with her disability prevent her from teaching and making public appearances. Miller died on October 31, 1998.
Works in Literary Context
Miller’s poetry was influenced by Emily Dickinson— whose stylistic and thematic concerns most closely resemble Miller’s—Edwin Arlington Robinson, the English metaphysical poets (John Donne, George Herbert, and Richard Crashaw), and Flannery O’Connor. Readers are also occasionally reminded of the American Puritan poet Edward Taylor, though Miller’s poetry is not so heavily theological. In the 1960s her work had affinities with the confessionalists Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell. Indeed, the confessional style has, over the years, become more predominant in Miller’s work.
Emotionally Charged Writing
Miller’s themes center on personal concerns: God (sometimes referred to as “Nada,” signifying the ineffable, the unknowable); religious faith (involving both belief and doubt—the need to believe and the necessity of doubt); suffering (physical and spiritual); loneliness (brought about by a life isolated from others); acceptance (the need to be accepted by others, to be accepted by God, and—perhaps most important— her own need to accept God); silence (the inexpressible, or that which cannot be absolutely or ultimately articulated); sleep (as the seducer, as death (as ”the dark nurse” that puts one ”to bed,” and in terms of suicide, nothingness, and eternity); loss (of innocence, of the joys of childhood, and of friends); the erotic (coupled with conventional yearnings for mystical union with God); the role of the religious poet (whose exuberance is associated with youth and childhood); and the barren inadequacy of modern technology. Readers will observe that humor, most often self-deprecating, is almost always present in Miller’s poems, whatever the thematic concerns.
Miller’s imagery is emotionally charged, sometimes violent, often erotic, but always appropriate in context. Her father is described as a ”ghost, child’s god,” while her tears of suffering are ”orgasmic shivers / along the spine of Midnight Mass.” To Miller, Christ is a ”pioneer in pain” and her own diseased body is ”this house of gutted portals” and ”this ravaged stack.” Persons intolerant of her physical disability ”would sleep upon the margin of my moans.” Sexual frustration is ”the jig and jerk / of titillated nerves.” Finally, the poet’s persona is ”the dog-self’ and time is ”an angry little beast / clawing inside us, tearing us to shreds.” Each of these are examples of how Miller incorporates vivid, emotional writing into her work.
Miller’s prosody (poetic meter) is now better understood, thanks to Bruce Kellner’s 1988 essay ”Blood in the Bone: Vassar Miller’s Prosody.” In Miller’s work one finds variations on the Japanese katuata and haiku, blank verse, open verse, dramatic monologues, villanelles, and more. Miller has said, in a 1983 interview with Karla Hammond, that Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ”sprung rhythm” has influenced her work, but that it is something that ”I sense rather than understand.” (Incidentally, Miller’s first poem was published in the Hopkins Review.)
Works in Critical Context
Problems with Critical Evaluation of Miller’s Work
Three problems typically arise in the critical evaluation of Miller’s poetic work. First, she has been approached too often as a Texas poet, implying for some that her work is of regional importance only, an inaccurate view considering her record of national publication. Second, Miller is an unusual phenomenon in contemporary literature: a religious poet. As a result, some readers are quick to reject her work on purely subjective grounds, an antipathy to orthodox religious belief. A careful reading of her poetry will demonstrate, however, that she is a poet, first, and a religious mystic, second. Religious belief provides her work with substance and texture, much as can be said of the work of poet T. S. Eliot. Third, her physical disability has entered into discussions of her literary production. No one will deny that cerebral palsy affected Miller’s poetry. Whether her disease has influenced critical evaluation of her work, or whether it ought to do so, is a matter of judgment. The reader and critic must, therefore, be on guard against prejudging Miller’s work on provincial, theological, or sympathetic grounds. The poetry speaks for itself, and many critics attest to its power.
Wage War on Silence
Miller’s early poetry was praised by reviewers. Her second collection, Wage War on Silence, received high compliments from fellow poet James Wright, who wrote in Poetry that Miller ”has no peer among the younger contemporary writers that I have read.” Wright went on to say that ”her formal sense is almost always adequate to the meaning, which in turn is to be found in the intensity of her feeling. Her lyrics, invariably brief, are religious and sometimes erotic.”
Struggling to Swim on Concrete
With her ninth volume of poetry, Struggling to Swim on Concrete (1983), Miller continued to earn the admiration of critics. Critic Paul Christensen wrote in the Texas Observer, ”Through craftsmanship, she is beautiful, lithe, eager; one misses her spirit in overlooking this telling surface of her work. Her technique is not merely historical, though it connects with a deep past of religious introspection and quest poetry, but rather archetypal, an economy of the soul, as she longs to perfect the ruined part of herself. These poems harrow hell and also glitter like stained glass windows in their rigor and distillations.” Christensen went on to praise her vision for being ”singularly this hidden self of beasts and fictions, gods and monsters,” which connects her to the Southern literary tradition of the twentieth century. According to James Tanner, the sonnet sequence, ”Love’s Bitten Tongue,” which closes the volume, demonstrates Miller’s technical brilliance.”
- Brown, Steven Ford, ed. Heart’s Invention: On the Poetry of Vassar Miller. Houston, Tex.: Ford-Brown, 1988.
- Friends of the University of Houston Libraries. A Tribute to Vassar Miller [videotape]. Houston, Tex.: University of Houston, 1983.
- Poets Laureate of Texas: 1932-1966. San Antonio, Tex.: Naylor, 1966.
- Christensen, Paul. ”A Dark Texas of the Soul.” Pawn Review (1984): 1-10.
- Hammond, Karla. ”An Interview with Vassar Miller.” Pawn Review the Failure of Texas Literature.” Texas Observer (October 23, 1981): 1-19.
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