Life of a Poet

Vassar Miller is broke, hospitalized and facing an uncertain future. Doesn't one of Texas' most esteemed writers deserve better?

Vassar knows which option she would choose. Her desires have been refined to one painfully modest objective: she just wants to live out her days in the home bequeathed to her by her father on the street named after her mother, surrounded by her dog and books and other belongings. But sadly, and perhaps unavoidably, that option may no longer be practical, and in any case Vassar doesn't have the power to make the decision.

"It's very frustrating," she says haltingly. "I feel trapped. I'm at the mercy of everyone."

It wasn't always like this.
Vassar Miller was born into well-heeled River Oaks society on July 19, 1924. Her father, Jessie Gustavus "J.G." Miller, was a successful real estate developer, and her mother, Vassar Morrison Miller, traced a lineage back to Sidney Lanier, a 19th-century Southern poet. The younger Vassar was destined from the start to be exceptional: she came into this world with cerebral palsy so severe that doctors told her parents that she would never be able to turn over by herself.

Most commonly caused by a lack of oxygen to a fetus or newborn infant, cerebral palsy is a non-progressive and as yet irreversible condition that impairs the brain cells controlling motor function. It may strike in mild form, or it may be, as in Vassar's case, debilitating.

All of her life, Vassar has suffered from a spastic speech condition that renders vocal communication difficult. She chokes out phrases and with an effort that contorts her frail features, almost as if her words themselves were causing her pain. All of her life, she walked with a spastic gait that made a constant struggle of the sort of basic ambulation that most people take for granted. Those outward manifestations of her condition are easily confused by the uninformed with retardation; an especially cruel misimpression, since the evidence of her work and her spoken words -- for anyone willing to make the necessary extra effort to understand them -- indicates a woman of uncommon brilliance. All of her life, Vassar Miller has said that her disabilities bother other people more than they bother her.

Vassar was one year old when her mother died. Her father continued to pay her the special attention her condition demanded and, against the prescribed odds, Vassar took her first steps at age seven. When Vassar was eight, J.G. Miller remarried, bringing a stepmother and, later, two stepsisters and a stepbrother into Vassar's world. It was around this time that her father began carting home an Underwood typewriter from work -- an event commemorated in Vassar's 1981 poem "Subterfuge," from The Sun Has No History.

I remember my father, slight,
staggering in with his Underwood,
bearing it in his arms like an awkward
bouquet
for his spastic child who sits down
on the floor, one knee on the frame
of the typewriter, and holding her left wrist
with her right hand, in that precision
known
to the crippled, pecks at the keys
with a sparrow's preoccupation.
Falling by chance on rhyme, novel and
curious bubble
blown with a magic pipe, she tries them
over and over,
spellbound by life's clashing in accord or
against itself,
pretending pretense and playing at playing,
she does her childhood backward as
children do,
her fun a delaying action against what she
knows.
My father must lose her, his runaway on
her treadmill,
will lose the terrible favor that life has
done him
as she toils at tomorrow, tensed at her
makeshift toy.

The discoveries Vassar Miller made on the clunky iron Underwood signaled the second extraordinary distinction of her life: a love of words and a craftsman's precision with their arrangement that would eventually catapult her quietly into the front ranks of American poets. She would go on to graduate with a master's degree from the University of Houston, publish eight books of verse, from 1956's Adam's Footprint to 1984's Struggling to Swim on Concrete, and edit, in 1985, Despite This Flesh: the disabled in stories and poems. She would earn a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1961, and recognition from the Texas Institute of Letters on three different occasions, in 1956, 1961 and 1963. She would be named Texas' Poet Laureate twice, an honor she today describes with her characteristically candid tongue as "an embarrassment," since those who preceded her at that honorary post possessed, in her brutal estimation, "no talent."

It's a not entirely vain opinion. In an incendiary 1981 essay in the Texas Observer that consigned the better part of Texas literature to the dungheap, Houston-raised novelist Larry McMurtry reserved admiration for only one Texas author -- Vassar Miller. McMurtry didn't dare spare his own work in writing, "I think it no hyperbole to suggest that her dozen best poems will outlast all the books mentioned in this essay .... That she is to this day little-known, read, or praised in Texas is the most damning comment possible on our literary culture."

But if her name and her work never entered the public consciousness with the force and fanfare that the masters of more popular art forms have come to expect, Vassar nonetheless managed to cultivate a society of friends and admirers that enriched her own life and the lives she entered. Friends remember that she loved to throw dinner parties, where she entertained literary colleagues and an assortment of educated and professional acquaintances, until her advancing age rendered the effort impossible. She traveled widely and gave occasional readings, for which she would hand out Xeroxed copies of the text so that listeners could follow the words. Barely mobile on foot, for a time she could be seen in an electric cart she owned tooling across the Southwest Freeway overpass near her home or up and down Richmond Avenue.

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