Heart of a poet still beats strong in Miller
Cotati poet loves to entertain audiences by reading classic poetry and other types of prose
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By Natalie Gray  April 18, 2014 12:00 am

Robert Miller enjoys words; he likes books, stories and poetry (though he admits to disliking the taste of the ‘modern’ flavor). What he seems to like most of all in words, though, is their ability to bring people together to form, if even for a small amount of time, a community bonded by the power of story.

At 92 years old, Miller says he remembers a time when individuals would come together to read and swap stories for entertainment, but witnessed those days slip out of style when the radio and television became easy entertainment.

That is the idea behind Miller’s Thursday poetry reading: to stitch the modern community – now broken apart and separated in an isolation of electronic entertainment – together for sake of beautifully strung words and a good story. He practices this community revival at the Redwood Café every Thursday night where he reads classical poetry to a restaurant full of listeners as part of the café’s weekly open mic night.

 

Memorizing lines and verses

“I thought it was a nice idea,” Miller said of his readings. “I went to the Redwood a few times…they always have someone there, playing their guitar. I thought, ‘why not have someone read poetry?’ I guess I’m kind of old fashioned that way. I don’t mind being old fashioned, though, I kind of enjoy it.”

Miller says he has always harbored an attraction for poetry and remembers having to memorize verses, lyrics and the like when he was a boy in school. His favorite was always, and continues to be, classical poetry. The only subject that matched his love of poetry was history. 

He remembers being personally asked by his school to recite “The Gettysburg Address” for a school function, which, though not a poem, Miller appreciates for its rhythmic sway and the lyrical structure of the piece. He loved the historic significance, too – definitely loved the historical significance.

Perhaps Miller’s long-time relationship with history comes in part with breathing in so much of it in his lifetime. According to Miller, he, his brothers and sister were very much children of the Great Depression. His father was a steel worker who could only work one day a week when the depression hit. The family moved to California from Ohio because of his mother’s severe asthma, and Miller worked his way through school. He said the best job he found paid 50 cents an hour.

Miller began attending college in 1941 studying journalism but left his school in ’42 when he was inducted into the army to fight in World War II. Miller served until ’45, and he remembers his rations including exactly two cigarettes and two sheets of toilet paper. While at college and while still in high school, Miller said his love of poetry did not waver and he enjoyed studying the subject.

 

‘I was pretty lousy’

“I suffered the illusion that I could write poetry,” Miller explained the attempt. “I got to reading it more seriously (in school) and realized I was pretty lousy.”

Writing poetry might not have been Miller’s calling, but as a true lover of words, he did not give up on the art and did not give up on writing. Miller remembers his great-grandfather fondly and with vivid detail: William Pitt Putnam, a Civil War veteran who always sported a long handlebar mustache and campaign hat. Putnam became the subject of Miller’s first book, “A Blue Bellied Yankee.” The book follows the history (discovered and researched by Miller) of 17-year-old, runaway Putnam as he lies to the government to serve as a Union Calvary soldier in the war.

Miller’s second book, “A Necessary Warrior,” was also about a war, only this time WWII and his own experiences. He has also written a book on his childhood in Ohio, though he has not published this piece and is reluctant to do so. 

He fancies the idea of distributing copies to his family members alone, a little piece of personal history just for loved ones to enjoy.

Miller gave up on journalism after he returned from the war and began looking to return to college. After literally walking out of two schools when asked to wait in long lines for classes (“After the army, I had made the promise with myself to never stand in line again.”), Miller attended the University of Redlands studying History. He then attended University of Southern California, earning a certificate in School Administration and Pupil Personnel Services with Psychologist Authorization.

 

Education jobs for life

He worked various jobs in education for the rest of his life, including teacher, counselor, psychologist and administrator. He said of all the fellow teachers that ever worked with him or for him in his district, it was his wife, Leona Nation, who was the best.

The two married in ’43 and had four children together, two sons Randall and Collier and two daughters, Kim and Robin. When Miller retired in ’88, he provided consultant services to the Oxnard Union High School District.

Now, Miller still writes and enjoys poetry. He attends a writing group and has been reading poetry at the Redwood Café for five weeks. He has read pieces like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at Bat.” His favorite poet is and always has been Robert Burns, whose work he plans to share at his readings. 

He also has plans to again recite “The Gettysburg Address” for audiences.

So, if you’re feeling nostalgic for the almost forgotten time of a more elegant and social entertainment, or wanting to experience it for the first time, stop by the Redwood Café in Cotati Thursday night and listen to a reading by Robert Miller. He’s easy to listen to with a smooth, careful voice, rolling laugh and constant smile. 

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