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[posted 06.03.2004]


THIS FRIDAY A SONGWRITER and a poet — Lucinda Williams and her father Miller Williams — will perform together at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Naturally, this event (presented by The Poetry Center) reminds me of both Billy Corgan and N.W.A.


My mother is likely still unaware, but when I was 15 I took my allowance to Camelot Music in a mall in Canton, Ohio and discreetly put it on the counter next to an N.W.A. album.N.W.A. and the Posse, specifically. She had never explicitly forbade me to buy the album — she probably wouldn’t have known what it was — but all the same I hid it from her like it was audio cassette pornography. Only occasionally I pulled the tape out from under my twin mattress to hear Eazy E and Dre speak ill of all those women who’d done them wrong by taking their money or their beatings, or by falling in love. It was raw, it was sensual, and I knew my parents wouldn’t approve. Certainly, (as the not-so-Fresh Prince Will Smith had made it very clear) they wouldn’t understand.

For as much as I love my parents it sometimes seems that the prerequisite for being a son (or daughter) is secrecy. On a larger scale, we — all of us — know how we got here and that we’re going to end. Most of us know how lonely and confusing and sometimes joyous the interim can be.

Yet how often do parents and kids acknowledge these shared truths? Sure, a child rebels, a parent protects, but they both have hopes, fears and stories to tell about places they’ve been, people they’ve met and things they want to do. They’re both…well, human.

Granted, kids and parents have reason for not straying from their typical roles: honest-to-god communication can be terrifying. At 15 I lacked both the understanding of my motives and the vocabulary to express them in an honest conversation with my mother about why I thought A Bitch Iz A Bitch was meritorious and incisive social commentary, er — hilarious. And at 29, that kind of communication is still a bit of a struggle. But then, I haven’t won Grammies and my mother wasn’t the 1997 inaugural poet for President Clinton.

Which is why I’m so amazed by Ms. and Mr. Williams: Here’s a parent-child duo who can and do speak for those of us who stumble over our words and our chords.

Both are nationally respected artists in their own right. Lucinda Williams was one of VH1’s top 100 women in rock and Time magazine named her “America’s Best Songwriter.” Part country, folk, rock and blues, her evocative songs are acclaimed as brilliant, breakthrough musical narratives. Miller Williams is the author, editor and translator of 30 books, including 14 volumes of poetry. The Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship in Poetry from Harvard University is just one of the awards he’s received.

Listening to Ms. Williams’ music (especially 2003’s heartbreakingly sublime World Without Tears) and reading some of Mr. Williams’ poetry (notably A Poem for Emily, in which the temporality of a grandfather’s love becomes immortalized in the obvious presence of death and decay) one can’t help thinking that warts-and-all transcendence seems to be in the bloodline.

Individually this policy of truth gives me hope enough in people; but considering them together, as father and daughter, it gives me a slightly different kind of hope: that in people called family. That is, if one family can recognize the value of communicating honestly with the people around them, including each other, why can’t yours and mine? Surely it doesn’t require a handful of Grammies and 30 books? Let’s see. I’ll start…

Mom, I bought an N.W.A. album back in 1989. It ruled. I’m sort of sorry to say. I…

Well anyway. It should be a good show.

For more reasons than one…

Lately certain poets lesser known than the Fresh Prince have been beating their bongos about rock stars masquerading as poets. In March, Billy Corgan and Jeff Tweedy joined Jewel Kilcher and Jim Morrison in having books of poetry published and a familiar debate once again reared its laureled head. Can song lyrics be poems? Are songwriters poets?

I suspect, though, that Friday’s performance will render the distinction arbitrary. That Lucinda is a songwriter and Miller is a poet doesn’t change the fact that both are striving, through their art, to express truths about the human experience. Truths much bigger than their means of expression.

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bryson meunier lives and works in chicago as a search marketing manager/seo guru for resolution media. which means he knows what you’re searching for even before you ask.