Songs to wide for sound: William Stafford

I return often to William Stafford's writing because it keeps me honest. There's something about it that just won't let me pretend to like or admire it if I don't. Admiration is a tricky problem in contemporary literature: one sometimes feels pressured to pay homage to writing of dubious merit. Stafford won't permit that--from me or anyone else, I suspect.

A famous poet once said, in giving advice to young writers, that they choose as a guide an author who seemed genuinely human to them - in other words, an author whose work had identifiable flaws as well as virtues. Stafford is only one of my guides, but on occasion he's good at getting under my skin. I'm annoyed with his abstractions when they get out of control, or with his images when they seem forced, or with his odd diction. Sometimes even his cadences become suddenly, inexplicably awkward.

After all that I can look at a given poem--for example, ''Answerers'' or ''By the Snake River''--and say, ''Well . . . but I like that poem.'' And I'll know why, too. There will be something there, some spirit so real working through the language that I can't help but admire it. That's when I'm sure that Stafford is one of the rarest talents of all - a genius of a regular guy.

To be a ''regular guy'' is, to me, to feel all the things we always feel--sorrows, regrets, delights, maybe even intimations of immortality--while we're going about our jobs, or talking to a neighbor, or hiking out in the woods. To be a genius at it is to be able to articulate it as accurately as words can get--without trumping it up into some grandiloquent dogma or sentimental falsehood. Stafford can articulate it; he has the genius.

In ''Answerers,'' for example, Stafford takes on the problem of intuition, particularly the intuition that the life we walk and work our way through every day is not the only life there is. It's not an uncommon intuition; for a lot of us it flickers through the mind now and then like a vague hope, too nebulous for words. Stafford begins to give it words. Out of the vastness of that unknown, he chooses his own starting point.

Harmony is his first concern: ''There are songs too wide for sound.'' These ''songs'' connote both music and story-telling. The music is particularly important, since harmony is one of those curious powers in our world, a power whose mathematical explanation in no way accounts for its psychological impact. A skilled composer commands harmonies and dissonances to arouse in us complex emotions, but cannot finally calculate the source of their influence. Music is, as Stafford suggests, a bridge between our known world and the unknown world around us.

Yet Stafford's songs are more in the unknown world than in this one. They are intuited rather than heard. Only in ''quiet places'' are they discovered; for only in these places, apart from the constraints of daily living, do we begin to perceive ''the many,'' the myriad yet specific possibilities for life itself. We begin to feel the meaningful attention of the spirit which we barely learned to engage--''the many who stir only if we listen, only because the living live and call out.'' This is the song, the music of living that moves us deeply. This is the story--our mysterious distance from these ''many,'' the arduousness of silence, the ardor of our calling out, our occasional, deep sense of kinship with unknown graces.

Perhaps an even more remarkable poem is ''By the Snake River.'' It takes an important, and fairly common, experience--world-weariness--and examines it with a sparkling torrent of insight. The epigraph from Albert Schweitzer is itself fascinating: it states that the spirit of life all around us demands from us insights and behavior which the constraints of our life, social position, political or religious authority, the various traditions in which we are raised, prevent us from attaining. What could be a better encapsulation of world-weariness--our will toward the spirit constricted by all manner of daily affairs!

Stafford takes up a meditation by which he can begin to escape this weariness. He sets himself in the wilderness, apart from whatever life he had that ''was all spilled from jostling when I went among the people to be one of them.'' He looks on a river, whose origin and course have been fashioned by a power entirely apart from the human. Unlike himself, the river has not followed a way ''the people would allow.'' With its source hidden in mountain valleys, it ''draws on lakes that hang still among clouds for its variable journey among scars and lava.'' Running through wild, dry country, the river is anomalous; yet ''it comes down with a wilderness of power.'' Stafford sees in it both an attractive integrity and a loneliness, which in their extremities are beyond his reach. Yet his meditation on the river offers him a degree of freedom from Schweitzer's ''conditions of life.'' The river gives Stafford a model, or a symbol, of an uncompromised power fully present in the world, as lively as humanity but ultimately separate from its ways and influences. It is a place to begin again, where his eyes - his acute perception of the real --''become most themselves to find what I am.''

The rough brilliance of Stafford's writing, revealing his deep concern for people, for feelings, for loneliness, for love, demonstrates the intimate weaving of a life with poetry. It shows the ways that a human being can speak to himself, and to others, of experiences that generally lie beyond the bounds of words. Stafford himself succinctly describes this realm of poetry in the conclusion to his short essay ''What It Is Like'': If you let your thought play, turn things this way and that, be ready for liveliness, alternatives, new views, the possibility of another world--you are in the area of poetry. A poem is a serious joke, a truth that has learned jujitsu. Anyone who breathes is in the rhythm business; anyone who is alive is caught up in the imminences, the doubts mixed with the triumphant certainty, of poetry.

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