MY NAME IS WILLIAM TELL By William Stafford Confluence Press, 78 pp., $11.
EVENING TRAIN By Denise Levertov New Directions, 120 pp., $8.95
GOOD poetry is dangerous. Emily Dickinson said that it blew the top of her head off. Some people begin to shiver. But the one thing a good poem won't do is leave you exactly the way it found you.
Poetry is all about transformation - the kind of transformation a friend of mine from Texas experienced when she saw snow for the first time. She stretched out her arms and slowly spun around and around, catching the flakes on her tongue. "Now I see," she finally said.
But how does a poet consistently blow the top of someone's head off? How does a poet transform himself or herself?
William Stafford's newest book, "My Name is William Tell" (released in paperback this spring), was the first place I looked for an answer. Stafford has long had a reputation for using ordinary language to maintain the value of the people and places around him - to discover what it means to be alive. Many poets try to do what Stafford does, yet the result is often hollow and falsely sweet. After numerous books, how would he avoid sounding like an imitation of his earlier works?
The answer to that question is simple. Stafford surprises readers from Page 1, and he allows himself to be surprised by what he has to say. "My Name is William Tell" is about overcoming "little oppressions" - age, loss, and extinction. In the first section of the book, Stafford takes the risk of relying on mostly nonhuman speakers. Among others, we hear from a bowstring, a coyote, and several extinct species. Stafford's central yet very human challenge is spelled out in "For Later," the fourth poem:
After prayers, after
I lost my way,
I wandered here. Is
there any place
for starting again,
even if years
have passed and I
after prayers, after I lost
The tone of this first section is often unsettling, and I found it strange that Stafford chose to write such "unrealistic" poems. But a careful reading proved that this approach was perhaps the only appropriate one.
Many poets have written about their own extinction and their fears for the planet to the point where these topics are almost cliche. Instead of telling readers straight out, Stafford suggests that he needs to establish a link between himself and the natural world. He lets readers feel the urgency he does, but he forces the audience to think about the implications of these poems.
In the second section, "Dreams of Childhood," the speaker stops looking at the outside world and looks inward. He addresses his own alleged failures as both a child and a parent, and the poems consistently refer to ways in which he has disappointed people. The speaker's inabilities are even mirrored in the actions of strangers.
This section could be seen as depressing or negative, but Stafford somewhat redeems these experiences by rendering them in a poetic way. I could still enjoy the beauty of the language, even before the poet hints at his own sensitivity and worth as a child. Further redemption takes places when the speaker becomes increasingly aware of his role "Of hiding important things because/ they don't belong in the world."
In sections 3 and 4, "Our Town Owned a Story" and "Crossing the Campus," Stafford continues to make use of a powerful imagination, and the result is an interesting mix of images. At times the poems are clear and direct, with subject matter that feels very true to life. In other poems the narrative is less clear, the speaker more removed, and I felt as though I were reading fantasy or fable. These poems were striking because they were so mysterious, yet where they outnumbered the more realistic poems, the y sometimes seemed like missed opportunities.
The strength of this book, I realized, lies in the fact that the poet is honestly grappling with difficult situations, as when he says, "The world has overwhelmed/ my kind; the score is thousands to nothing." in the poem "Crossing the Campus with a New Generation." But every poet has to make sure that imagination doesn't do too much work.
The final poem in this collection tranforms Stafford's statements about life both in this particular book and in the work he's done over a lifetime. Entitled "You, Reader," the poem begins "Any night you can awake and line up with the north star" and ends with "Now, go back and begin again." This line turns the whole book around by making it clear that the negative images already encountered do not have the same kind of permanence as the natural world and the life force behind it.
The poem demands that both reader and author rethink their previous experiences, yet the positive tone was so unexpected that the poet's message was not as convincing as it could have been. A poet needs to prepare readers more before undermining their sense of direction. If Stafford had only given us one more poem, a smoother transition through his mental landscape, he would have changed readers in a more lasting way.
It's so easy to say that poetry is all about listening to your most perceptive, alert, and sensitive thoughts. But really, this listening takes a lifetime to master, and it's both the challenge and the reward of creating art.
ANY book of poetry that blows the top of my head off does so because the author has consistently tapped into a higher plane. Stafford's book was a pretty good example of that, but Denise Levertov's "Evening Train" (also released this spring) is even better.
Like her peer, Levertov has made a major contribution to the shape of contemporary American poetry. But where Stafford's latest book works through the darkness of human life and then overturns it all, Levertov's collection is about the struggle to maintain peace and faith. Her opening poem, "Settling," about living on a mountain, sets up the central tension and premise. In the last three lines Levertov states that:
Grey is the price
of neighboring with eagles, of
a mountain's vast presence,
seen or unseen.
The book is divided into seven sections, and within their pages the poet writes about the natural world, art, her memories, people she has lost, Biblical stories, and the foolishness of war. Yet what really stands out is the evenhanded tone of this collection and the newness her themes seem to have for her. Unlike some of her other books, this one feels almost buoyant, and Levertov is determined to maintain the value of all earth's creatures, herself included.
"Evening Train" demonstrates that a person can write about the same kinds of things for a lifetime, as long as she sees them always with new eyes. This means some kind of transformation before the poet sits down to write. It also means that she relies on images and evocative narratives rather than making general statements.
Many of Levertov's poems work the way "Flowers of Sophia," from Section 4, does. The poem begins with a very simple list: "Flax, chicory, scabious-" and then encourages a certain perception of these plants with the description "flowers with ugly names." The poet portrays them as living in waste ground, thus reinforcing that perception. But then she surprises readers by saying "Every kind has a delicate form, distinctive/ it would be a pleasure to draw them." And by the last line, the waste flowers are "w ise beyond comprehension.
This kind of simple movement, based on specific details, is at the heart of good poetry. Emotions are suggested by the way Levertov describes the things around her. Her language delights and surprises, and we come to trust her observations. By the time she begins talking about less concrete subjects like faith and God, we feel thoroughly grounded and satisfied that she has earned the right to lead us into this area. Her poems still rely on imagery, as in these lines from "The Tide":
Faith's a tide, it seems, ebbs
and flows responsive
to action and inaction.
Remain in stasis, blown sand
stings your face, anemones
shrivel in rock pools no wave
The only time the poet gets into trouble is when she deals with political subjects and slips back into old ways of doing things. There seems to be more political comment than poetry, and the reader is forced out of a more perceptive frame of mind.
So what then is the answer to my original question? How do poets transform themselves and their writing? The short answer can only be that they go moment by moment, with eyes open, their minds clear and willing.