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He just as well could be talking about music. In fact, James O’Neill Miller, a poet, is talking about music. For him, the two — poetry and music — are inexorably entwined.
Miller describes a poet’s music as “a subconscious beat that originates from his or her rhythm.”
He has been playing guitar, he says, for two or three years. Largely self-taught, he specializes in folk rock. Not surprisingly, he says his songs are lyrically driven. (He sometimes works into his gigs the recitation of his poetry.
“Poetry really merges sound and language,” Miller says. “You follow the sound, and the words will create more physical embodiment in the poem. So the reader can really feel the world that’s being created.
“I feel that poetry originates from music. And traditionally speaking, you think back before the radio and CD players, people would memorize poems. Poems were like people’s songs.”
I look down on this river. From a hill
I stare at its small beach, its slow tides
of litter. I sit and watch those who still
walk on its sand, who still fish by its side.
The close distance I keep is who I am;
it allows me to know without touching
when tires float in, how the children’s slick hands
still grab and stack them, build forts before rushing
to look for sticks or shells, cans to throw
at each other as their parents talk. This life
between lives, my pressed suit and their worn clothes,
where is its address with kids and a wife?
It’s left me here with all that I’ve won,
up here on a hill talking to no one.
Miller’s poems generally are less than a page. Lately, he’s been exploring forms — iambic pentameter, for instance. When Miller was a graduate student at New York University, he studied under renowned poets including Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Phillis Levin and Yusef Komunyakaa. Levine, now the poet laureate of the United States inspired Miller to challenge himself to write in iambic pentameter.
Something Levine told him has stuck through the years: “The problem with poets today,” Miller recalls Levine having said, “is that they think they can break the rules before ever learning them.”
Miller, 29, says he started appreciating poetry by his senior year in high school. During his first two years of college, he was a more typical English major, and he wrote mostly in his journals.
On the Nanticoke River
This is usually my small space
beneath the stars. Here, next to the river,
where my thoughts drift on an airy raft-
to the past, always to the past.
But tonight there’s a dog here, a lab
or shepherd, this dog splashing in the water.
Licked with moonlight, she seems to shake off sleep,
dragging to shore all the branches and logs
the river offers.
Maybe it’s because we’ve met by dark
and I haven’t run away, she hasn’t barked,
maybe this is why I believe the dog is mine?
But, no, she couldn’t be mine, for she moves
too much like the river. As now, stepping
out of water onto sand, she stops to look back
at the current- the hum of ripples
that keeps her calm on land, still enough to sleep
Somehow I believe she still sees herself
as part of the current. Of course, she must feel
her fur, wet on the beach, gathering flies.
But her senses, those pointed ears and staring eyes,
they seem to open to the river so easily-
as if tides only take us where we want to go.
When he was 22, he began taking poetry seriously. It came more so from reading and trying to emulate the poems he was reading. By the time he was 24, Miller had embarked on an intense two years of graduate school during which he learned from several Pulitzer Prize winners.
He is the instructor now. Miller takes the train from New Castle to Philadelphia to teach a variety of writing and reading courses at the Community College of Philadelphia. He imparts on his students the value of traditional poetry and the tools it employs. Once they know the rules, they can begin to break them.
“Something in a poem, you can taste it,” he says, “whereas a painting is a painting, a sculpture is a sculpture.”
For Miller, who sometimes refers to verses as stanzas, a poem also can be a song.
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