Volume 74, Number 29 | November 24 - 30, 2004


Jeffrey Miller: Forever good

By Andrei Codrescu

I know a guy, 23 years old, filled with despair at the world’s neglect of his poetry. Why won’t anybody publish him? Can’t they see he’s a genius? If six years pass and he still hasn’t gotten past the front door at YAWP, New Orleans’ hottest new place to be seen in verse, but he’s still writing, then, yes, by all means, make room at the table. Buy him a drink. A poet walks among us.

“For a measure of just what it takes to stay in this biz, I present you with an excerpt from a letter to me by a stranger: “I’m pretty much sick. With a couple of fatal illnesses. I’m not going to pronounce or predict because there are incredible breakthroughs pending momentarily in science. Emphysema. Hep C. I’m 55. Impoverished on S.S.I…. So it occurred to me to write to you to try to expedite my fame and fortune…. When I was a young poet being groomed for the hall of laurels, my mentors assured me that I was good. That I was so good in fact that I’d probably go to my grave undiscovered.” My correspondent goes on to list her fears of what will happen to her work after her death and she asks, with heart-wrenching earnestness if I would be her literary executor.

Eegads! Who set this wonderful creature on her course of perdition? What irresponsible high school or college teacher told her to keep living on air and singing her verses? These mentors, whoever they are, should be brought up short (and from the dead, if need be) and upbraided (or flogged) for setting this woman on the ruinous course of poetry. On the other hand, this plaint has echoed through the ages and it hasn’t stoppped the young from stepping over the precipice. Most famously, Wordsworth: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness. But thereof in the end comes despondency and madness.”

My letter writer’s poetry might be totally great, and far from having wasted her time, she may have written works of complete genius. She just picked the wrong guy to pass on her oeuvre to. I just finished editing a posthumous book by Jeffrey Miller, a dear friend and great poet who died nearly 30 years ago. This book has been in the works every decade since 1980, but I never quite got around to seeing it through. Jeffrey has time, I always thought. What’s a decade or so to the dead? Now, it will finally appear in the spring. In one of his poems, Jeffrey explains the reason why so much heartbreak attends poets, and not just poets: “If all the people in the world were to hold hands the love generated would fill half a shot glass.” Well, that’s the sad truth and fame don’t cure that.

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