Alumni Memories of William Meredith



Sally Langer '81

Although never fortunate enough to have had Professor Meredith for a teacher, I did have a lovely encounter with him a couple of years ago. It was late August 2005, and I was driving from Cape Cod back home to New York City. With me were my parents and my daughter, Davie, who was 3 years old. We decided to stop in New London and have lunch at Fred's Shanty. We sat outside by the water, lamenting that these would probably be our final fried clams of the summer. As we sat, a frail but distinguished elderly gentleman approached, accompanied by two friends. They sat at the table next to us, and we all began to talk about the perfect day, the perfect view, the perfect clams. It took me a moment, but it finally clicked. “You're Professor Meredith!” He smiled and nodded, and I introduced myself and my family. I probably gushed a bit too much, but I was delighted to see him after so many years. I explained to Davie that Professor Meredith was a famous poet. “Really?” she said. “Do you know any poems?” He laughed, and asked her if she'd like to hear one of his poems. He began to recite. As the cadence of his voice rose and fell, Davie sat perfectly still, entranced. When Professor Meredith finished, Davie jumped to her feet and applauded. “Do you want to hear one of my poems?” she asked. Professor Meredith, kind and generous, said of course. And that is how it happened that my three-year-old daughter and the esteemed William Meredith came to exchange poetry on a warm summer afternoon.

Meg Sahrbeck Sempreora '69 Chair, Associate Professor of English, Webster University, St. Louis, Mo.

William Meredith taught me to recognize the craft and read the human in poetry and fiction and with abundant intelligence and grace, he taught me to assess my own poetry. Meredith witnessed for all his students his joy in literature, serenity in teaching, and wisdom and compassion in mentoring. When we sat over my weekly offering of poems, I never doubted that he knew what was weak or “not working” in the poems; I knew clearly from his teaching what he prized in the craft of words. Despite, or because of, his legendary gentleness of criticism, I learned that it was within my power to evaluate and repair my efforts. Guided to my own insights, I became ready -- eager – to take up the broken bits and re-measure the open spaces of my writing. From Meredith I learned that an exchange between teacher and student can be deeply compassionate and profoundly useful as well; that lesson has been a rich gift in my own teaching. Two specific memories: Professor Meredith invited fine poets to the campus. These were hosted by the literature club, who -- for the meager task of taping up announcements -- attended the reading and then shared a supper of chili with the poet and members of the English department faculty in Meredith's home in Uncasville. Meredith's intelligent and inclusive good humor kept us all lively members of the most stimulating conversation I had ever experienced. I remember drying dishes with F.D. Reeve, talking with Professor Alan Bradford, and writing a poem to Adrienne Rich after her visit. With Meredith, a small group of us made a pilgrimage to New York City to hear John Berryman take part in a reading honoring the poems of Berryman's and Meredith's comrades who had been recently lost: Jarrell, Schwartz, Bishop, Lowell. We sat in the center of a crowded theatre with Meredith at our center and I remember Berryman leaning heavily on the lectern and straining toward Meredith to call out to him, “They were fine poets, William.” Meredith called back in his resonant, kind voice, “Yes, they were, John.”

Ann Frankel Robinson '59 Author of Ordinary Perils, a collection of short fiction

What makes a great teacher? Having recently viewed the film The History Boys I've been thinking about this, and in particular, I've been thinking about poet William Meredith, who passed away May 30. Mr. Meredith, as we called him then, taught creative writing at Connecticut College when I was a student in the late fifties. He had just been teaching at the College for three years when I, as a senior majoring in English, took his seminar.

Having spent the previous three years satisfying degree requirements (many having little or nothing to do with my growing interest in writing) I eagerly anticipated the chance to be in the same room with a gifted poet whose work had achieved significant recognition. He was about to publish his third collection, The Open Sea and Other Poems ; the same year he would receive a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Here was a man who managed to combine his duties as assistant professor with his productivity as a poet. And he was going to teach six young women how to write!

How did he accomplish this? He had us keep journals, which he would read, offering comments. These were no ordinary journals. We were to use them as resources for our work, not as chatty diaries. He sent us to the library to read reserve copies of The New Yorker, in whose pages the stories of Updike and Cheever regularly appeared. He recommended Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart , a beautiful, heartbreaking story of young love that made us all weep.

Occasionally, he would share with us a poem he was working on, and he would solicit our critical comments. I don't remember if we were harsh -- most probably, none of us dared. We clearly felt we were in the presence of genius. He was instrumental in bringing talented poets to campus -- Stephen Spender and John Hollander, to name two. Most importantly he treated us like equals, inviting us to spaghetti suppers in his home. Who would have dreamed that we would be guests in a poet's home and that he, or his companion, would cook for us? We lived for those evenings. Sadly, they were cut short by executive decision: the head of the English Department decided it was not seemly for young, impressionable women to be fraternizing with a faculty bachelor. These were the fifties, after all.

Something was lost when we were forbidden to have spaghetti in William Meredith's house. I should add that we all had crushes on him, so, yes, we felt deprived of his non-campus secret self, but it was something else we missed. By inviting us into his home, he was encouraging us to think beyond the classroom. He was teaching us to feel comfortable in a sophisticated setting. Much as the dear professor in The History Boys teaches his students the lyrics to romantic songs like “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Mr. Meredith was showing us there was a world outside of the campus, a world we would soon be entering, a delectable, slightly seductive world where men and women actually talked to each other as equals. What did we know of this practice, we who were introduced to coed society by that most barbaric of all customs, the college mixer?

In later years, when Mr. Meredith won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, I rejoiced in my good fortune as well. How lucky I was to have been in that seminar! My cherished copy of The Open Sea is inscribed “To my friend and student,” words that continue to inspire me even after so many years have passed.

Annie M. Scott '84

When I walked into his office, a shy sophomore in the spring of 1982, he looked at my meager portfolio and said, “You like to play with words, don't you?” My eyes were wide in awe – reverence – shock. I nodded my head in affirmation. “You're in,” he said.

Creative writing – not for the faint of heart and not usually for underclassmen. Nothing built my confidence and strengthened my sense of self like the weekly wink and smile from William Meredith. He liked the “voice” in my work and shared his voice and the voices that inspired him.

Bill was wonderful to me while I was a student at Conn ('80-'84), and I felt his support even more when I became a member of the staff (Admissions '84-'87). Though he had already suffered his stroke when I was hired, he still visited campus fairly often. During his visits he would stop by the admission office, lifting himself beyond the effects of his illness to ask how I was doing and share some piece of poetry.

We drifted apart and did not keep in touch as we promised, but I always felt that he was there on the road with me wherever I roamed. I will continue to feel this.

The Rev. Nina George Hacker '76

Professor Meredith was very encouraging of my writing when he was my poetry teacher at Connecticut College. I appreciated his support because my parents disapproved of my then-desire to become a writer/poet -- in their view, that was too “bohemian” (insufficiently remunerative) an occupation. I once asked Bill what it was like to be so famous, and he responded, “Oh, believe me, you never want to be famous!” It would seem that I heeded his advice, since I'm not, and my parents are happy, too, inasmuch as I did not become a professional poet, either. Instead, I write sermons!

Janet Matthews '66

Whenever Mr. Meredith was scheduled to do a poetry reading, posters with his photograph would appear all over campus -- and almost immediately disappear. Seems that an awful lot of us had crushes on him…

Pat McMurray '67

I was an English major in the Class of 1967. I was accepted into a Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania in my senior year. I went to Mr. Meredith and earnestly asked him whether he thought I should accept that offer and go into the graduate program, or become a waitress in New York City and try to get my poetry published. He looked at me for a moment in what I now realize was disbelief -- and then chuckled. “I think you should go to graduate school,” he said. I did and I am glad I took his advice. My poetry was pretty bad. He didn't say so, but he didn't have to!