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Art people: Michael Miller / poet

  • Poet Mike Miller at home in Northampton Oct. 1.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Poet Mike Miller at home in Northampton Oct. 1.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Poet Mike Miller at home in Northampton Oct. 1.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Poet Mike Miller at home in Northampton Oct. 1.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Poet Mike Miller at home in Northampton Oct. 1.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

As Michael Miller sees it, art is about passion. It’s about working regularly at your craft, too, but what’s most important is finding an honest way to give voice to your emotions and feelings.

“Passion leads to immediacy, and when you have that, you have themes and subjects that are universal, that people can identify with,” says Miller, a longtime poet who has found success in recent years. “You have to compromise in so many ways in life, but you can’t do it in art.”

Miller, who’s 71 and lives in Northampton, has done other kinds of writing, such as plays and short stories. But poetry has always called to him the most. During a varied career that included stints as a social worker, fiction editor and U.S. Marine, he kept writing, publishing poems in journals such as The Kenyon Review and The Sewanee Review, and occasionally a small chapbook.

But it wasn’t until recently that Miller, now retired, was able to get a volume of his work published. In 2008, he won an award from Ashland Press, at Ashland University in Ohio, for his first book, “The Joyful Dark.” He’s now published his third collection, “Darkening the Grass,” with CavanKerry Press of Fort Lee, N.J., which works with emerging and mid-career poets.

His work has won acclaim from esteemed poets like Richard Wilbur of Cummington, who praises Miller’s poems for “their accurate seeing, their assured phrasing, their true and proportionate feeling.” In a voice that’s clear and unsentimental, Miller writes about fundamental things: love and marriage, war and peace, aging and death.

“These are the kinds of subjects that I wrestle with,” he says. “It’s important that I find a way to try and address them.”

The poems in “Darkening the Grass,” for example, offer hope and foreboding, profiles of damaged soldiers, portraits of elderly couples and a celebration of the natural world. The narrator of “Wildwood Cemetery,” out for an early-morning walk, finds his spirit lifting as he watches animals cavort: “The dread of death he carries like a tarnished coin / Vanishes as a goldfinch rises to the sky.”

Miller wakes most mornings by 4 a.m. and writes until 6:30, liking the quiet and dark for contemplation. He’ll take a walk in nearby woods and fields, then wake his wife, Mary, and write some more. At 9, he gives the work to Mary for a first read.

“She’s a wonderful editor,” Miller says. “She knows me so well that she doesn’t let me get away with a false word or thought.”

Her observations, as well as his own intuition, tell him what’s worth keeping and what’s not; he also gets feedback from poet friends. Miller says he’s probably discarded 99 percent of what he’s written over the years, though he might keep a kernel of an unfinished poem, looking to build off some lines that he likes.

Ideas come from many places, he notes. He might wake with a line already running through his mind, or a clear notion of what he wants to write about. “Sometimes I just have a certain feeling when I wake up, and I try to follow that where it goes.”

Though he’s been disappointed in the past to be a finalist in poetry contests but not get the prize, Miller says seeing his poetry in print isn’t necessarily his goal. “I write because I have to,” he said.

— Steve Pfarrer

Michael Miller will read from and sign copies of his new book Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton. He’ll be joined by Amherst poet Wally Swist, who will read from and sign copies of his new volume, “Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love.”

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