Following the most recent rounds of atrocities—Iraq, London—a friend wanted to talk. He did not have comforting insights into mankind’s oldest philosophical question, nor did I. I don’t know whether Miller Williams has the answer, but this distinguished American poet ponders it beautifully. With his permission, here is one of his finest poems.
Why God Permits Evil:
For Answers to This Question
Of Interest to Many
Write Bible Answers, Dept. E-7
—ad on a matchbook cover
Of interest to John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas
for instance and Job for instance who never got
one straight answer but only his cattle back,
With interest, which is something, but certainly not
any kind of answer unless you ask
God if God can demonstrate God’s power
and God’s glory, which is not a question.
You should all be living at this hour.
You had Servetus to burn, the elect to count,
bad eyes and the Institutes to write;
you had the exercises and had Latin.
the hard bunk and the solitary night;
You had the neighbors to listen to and your woman
yelling at you to curse God and die.
Some of this to be on the right side;
some of it to ask in passing, Why?
Why badness makes its way in a world He made?
How come he looked for twelve and got eleven?
You had the faith and looked for love, stood pain,
learned patience and little else. We have E-7.
Churches may be shut down everywhere,
half-written philosophy books be tossed away.
Some place on the South Side of Chicago
a lady with wrinkled hose and a small gray
bun of hair sits straight with her knees together
behind a teacher’s desk on the third floor
of an old shirt factory, bankrupt and abandoned
except for this just cause and on the door:
Dept. E-7. She opens the letters
asking why God permits it and sends a brown
plain envelope to each return address.
But she is not alone. All up and down
the thin and creaking corridors are doors
And desks behind them: E-6, E-5, 4, 3.
A desk for every question, for how we rise
blown up and burned, for how the will is free,
for when is Armageddon, for whether dogs
have souls or not and on and on. On
beyond the alphabet and possible numbers
where cross-legged, naked, and alone,
there sits a pale, tall, and long-haired woman
upon a cushion of fleece and eiderdown
holding in one hand a handwritten answer,
holding in the other hand a brown
plain envelope. On either side, cobwebbed
and empty baskets sitting on the floor
say In and Out. There is no sound in the room.
There is no knob on the door. Or there is no door.
©1999 by Miller Williams
Williams wrote and read the inaugural poem at the beginning of President Bill Clinton’s second term in 1997, four years after Maya Angelou was the inaugural poet as President Clinton began his first term. In a PBS program, The Inaugural Classroom, a 12th grader asked Williams how it felt to be compared to Angelou.
“She writes opera and classical music,” Williams said, “and I write jazz and blues.”
The late poet John Ciardi summed up Williams this way:
Miller Williams writes about ordinary people in the extraordinary moments of their lives. Even more remarkable is how, doing this, he plays perilously close to plain talk without ever falling into it; how close he comes to naked sentiment without yielding to it; how close he moves to being very sure without ever losing the grace of uncertainty. Add to this something altogether apart, that what a good reader can expect to sense, coming to these poems, is a terrible honesty, and we have among us a voice that makes a difference.