Notes on Joaquin Miller

“Come, listen O Love to the voice of the dove,
Come, hearken and hear him say,
“There are many Tomorrows, my Love, my Love,
There is only one Today.”
—excerpt from “The Voice of the Dove” by Joaquin Miller

Miller, based on his biography, seemed to live by those words “there is only one Today” and he seemed to live many days to their fullest while, at the same time, living many lives.

Born Cinnatus Hiner in 1837, the poet changed his name to Joaquin Miller. He adopted his new first name from a California bandit.

Recently, I read “sorting out truth from fiction in Joaquin Miller’s life is like unraveling a horse-hair lariat and weaving it back together blindfolded.” Was he a horse thief? Who knows? He said he traveled to Nicaragua and that was later found to be—ahem—not true.

A friend of Joaquin Miller’s defended Miller against charges of dishonesty: “Joaquin Miller tells the truth as he sees it.” However, Ambrose Bierce, who once called Miller “the greatest-hearted man I ever knew” also called Miller “the greatest liar this country ever produced.”

Miller’s response was: “I always wondered why God made Bierce.”

Famous poets and Miller’s critics alike recognized his genius.

What was his genius?

According to the Oregon Cultural Commission, his greatest achievement may well have been the manufacture of his own career. Miller was a failed lawyer, yet he excelled in his outgoing ways.

Miller, among other things, was an ex-Oregonian “dressed in a buffalo robe, with knife and pistols, in a red frontier shirt and boots.” Dressed this way, he managed to woo people to listen to him read his work.

In England, publishers were at first unimpressed. In response, Miller printed 100 copies of his book. Success arrived. “Miller managed to capture drawing rooms of British intelligentsia while dazzling them with his velvet coat and the bear rug he threw on the floor to comfort him as he spouted his own writings.”

After that, people would refer to Miller as “the Poet of the Sierras.” He called himself “the Byron of the Rockies.” Eventually, he retired to 75 acres above Oakland, planted trees, and established Arbor Day in California.

In true Miller fashion, he did not just “plant trees.” Since he did not like the dry landscape, he created a 75-acre forest. Whether he planted a forest instead of a tree or two or called himself Byron instead of a poet of the Sierras, he held true to his vision for himself. That was, as others have said, part of the genius that both writers and critics recognized and sometimes adored.

Note: When I wrote this, it was part of an introduction during the 2013 Miller Cabin poetry reading series. Since I did not plan to share this in writing, I did not take the best notes on my sources. I hope to correct this at a later point, and I am fairly certain I have the borrowed bits all in quotes (just not attributed how they should be attributed yet).