Remembering an American poet: WILLIAM STAFFORD
IF poets were gems, William Stafford - who recently passed away - would be among the most valuable. During the past few decades, Stafford's poems appeared on this page many times. His work has a special place in American poetry. While some poets seem to be writing for a select audience, Stafford appealed to both scholars and laymen. For many people he became the symbol of what poetry can and should be.
Stafford wrote numerous books of poetry, and his work was widely anthologized. He was the recipient of many awards, among them a National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Award in Literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Shelley Memorial Award. Stafford also served as consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress.
The Monitor asked three poets to share their recollections and impressions of Stafford and his work.
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Many people would say that William Stafford was a master poet, yet more important was his mastery of the art of living. Stafford the poet opened himself up to what his poems wanted to say, and through him they were created. Yet it's obvious from reading his work that Stafford the man was part of another creative process: one where he was the creation.
I've often been struck by what seems to be the differences between these two states, yet more and more I find that they are really the same practice. Receptivity and attentiveness are basic tools, as is the ability to respect all the ways that life manifests itself around you.
The ability to write - to sit down and humbly be a servant - is perhaps the most demanding kind of work. It means sharpening your skills and senses so that you are ready to give form to pictures and language. You willingly accept the task of translating experience and insight into art. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and in turn you are subtly changed.
I recently attended a poetry reading by W. S. Merwin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is the custom at MIT to begin a reading by sharing the work of another poet, and Mr. Merwin read several of Stafford's poems.
The one that most stood out to me was ``Traveling Through the Dark,'' a poem that Merwin described as chilling. The piece details the experience of finding a dead doe along the side of a road. As the speaker bends down to push the deer into the canyon below, he realizes that her stomach is still warm, and inside it is her unborn fawn. The poem ends with the statement ``I thought hard for us all - my only swerving -,/ then pushed her over the edge into the river.''
I have long loved this poem for the way it leaves me breathless. Yet as I listened to Merwin slowly read each line, I realized that this was in many ways a poem about beginnings.
The poem represents, for me, the way that poetry redeems negative experiences by rendering them in beautiful language and teaching the reader to feel again. The poem suggests that every life is worth writing about, and it is a testament to Stafford's love of the world that he helps complete.
Stafford the poet will long be remembered for all the poems he carefully crafted. Yet what I hope to remember as a writer and a teacher is the way Stafford the man honored Stafford the creation. As he said in a Monitor interview two years ago: ``I am a butterfly, I'm not a butterfly collector. I want the experience of the butterfly.'' - Elizabeth Lund
* Elizabeth Lund is a published poet on the Monitor's staff. She has taught creative writing at Cornell University.
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I only met William Stafford once, at the Duke Writers Conference in June 1985. He was teaching the poetry workshop at the conference, and I came down to give the visiting poet's reading. After teaching in New York in the afternoon I flew to North Carolina and was driven directly from the airport to the reading. It was an extremely hot day, and I remember how wilted the audience seemed, and how wilted I felt, as I stood before them. But in the second row sat William Stafford, looking fresh and alert. I have never seen a more attentive listener at a reading. As I spoke he seemed to give each syllable his full attention.
After the reading, he and I sat up in my motel room and talked about his years as a conscientious objector in World War II. The second edition of his memoirs about the war years, ``Down in My Heart,'' had just been published, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to question him about the life in the work camps in the Northwest and the South where he served the country by planting trees and fighting erosion. I was especially interested in hearing about the small press he operated with William Everson, also a conscientious objector, publishing pamphlets of poetry in the camp in Oregon.
The next morning I visited Stafford's workshop. I will never forget the quickness of his responses to the poems read there. He did not critique the work in the usual sense (line by line). After listening to a poem he would sometimes ask a question. He praised particular features of poems and criticized only in an oblique way. Two of his comments I have never forgotten. A participant asked if she should publish a poem that might, through its revelations, hurt the feelings of her mother.
``There are things more important than poetry,'' Stafford said. ``Remember, you are free to write anything, but you don't have to publish it.''
The other comment was about the element of surprise in poetry. ``A phrase can astonish us,'' he said. ``But then it must seem inevitable.''
How often I have recalled that, and quoted it to students and myself. Poetry should surprise us, but it should not be merely surprising. It must also seem right, even inevitable, once we take it in.
Another thing Stafford communicated to that workshop was the dailiness of the work of poetry. Every morning he wrote a new poem and posted it on the bulletin board outside his classroom. He had a sense that poetry was a way of living, of keeping the intelligence working, of ongoing experiment.
I don't believe critics have yet realized the range and variety of Stafford's poems. He is most often represented in anthologies and textbooks by earlier work. But in fact his poetry kept evolving and transforming itself over the years. His work never ceased to be radical and experimental. His explorations in form and voice and gesture will astonish those who know only his frequently reprinted pieces.
Stafford was an avid runner, and even in his 70s he was lean and fit. And he kept the same fitness in his writing, and in his approach to writing. There was the confidence of dedication in his sense of movement, economy. At his readings he liked to say he wanted to ``witness'' a poem to the audience. One had the feeling that everything he did was witnessing. For him, poetry was a spiritual enterprise, a lifelong testimony to the restlessness and richness of the human spirit. - Robert Morgan
* Robert Morgan has published 10 books of poetry. He teaches English at Cornell University. Often referred to as a ``regional poet,'' Morgan, like Stafford, has a keen eye for the extraordinary as expressed in the ordinary.
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This morning, thinking much too deliberately of trying to write something about my old friend Bill Stafford, I was reading through sheaves of his letters and was looking into various of his books here and there, just swerving and ambling and connecting in the Stafford way, when I found poems I'd forgotten I've known: ``A Sound from the Earth,'' in which Crazy Horse's grandfather cries out for him as the whole bowl of the earth trembles, and also ``Report to Crazy Horse.'' Here, Stafford's speaker says to the warrior's spirit, ``No one remembers your vision/ or even your real name.'' He goes on:
A teacher here says
hurt or scorned people are
where real enemies hide. He
we should not hurt or scorn
but help them. And I will tell
in a brave way, the way Crazy
talked: that teacher is right.
A poet's work is not a body of doctrine, of course, and Stafford in so many intriguing ways taught that a true poem will feel free to follow its own impulses. But in this poem, by way of his speaker, he writes directly and unflinchingly from his moral heart: ``we should not hurt or scorn anyone,'' for in doing so we create our enemies.
In the same way, for he was not a poet in whom perfection of the life and of the work were at war, Stafford was extremely uncomfortable about discriminating among his own or others' poems. The soul of the world nudging itself awake, speaking by way of rhythm and language beyond intellectual hearing might be catching its breath in that apparently unremarkable or trite sequence of workshop sounds.
Years ago at a reading, I heard him say four little words that swirled everything together for me, that challenged the scientific-industrial complexes that our minds are in danger of becoming, that protested our arrogant destruction of the ecosystem, that sang out for the compassion and love that might save us. He said, ``I love feeble poems.''
Imagine: A poem is okay if maybe it's weak, if it doesn't feel so hot today or hear so well today, if it seems to need a crutch, if its speech is not greatly heightened, or if it does not seem to be the stunning crystalization of experience most anthology lyrics are. The poem of creation doesn't always have to exclaim, ``Eureka!''
In a 1971 letter that he wrote to me, Stafford said, ``In general, I feel a need to figure out for myself whether I should inhibit [the] appearance of some kinds of poems in which I grope around for achievement without conviction on my own part that the job is done, but without perception of how to redeem the gropy progress of something that still entices me to keep groping.'' Yes, he sometimes felt this need, as we all do - there was the activity, after all, of putting together cohesive books from voluminous writings - but other needs, more mysterious and inclusive ``trajectories'' (a favorite word of his), were much more important.
The poem as horse, the poet as rider. Someday, maybe, it is twilight. How much rein to give the horse on its way home? When I write, I feel blessed in the abiding presence of my friend, who keeps finding the way before me.
Since August of 1992, I've written more than 300 poems, many in a trance of process, that turn on the Custers, the Great Plains, the buffalo, and especially the Sioux mystic and warrior Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse's real name, as Bill Stafford knew, is Tasunke-Witko, which might mean, I understand, something like ``one whose horse dances crazy'' or ``one whose horse is enchanted.'' - William Heyen
* William Heyen will soon publish his 10th book of poetry. He is a professor of English and poet-in-residence at SUNY, Brockport, N.Y. His friendship with William Stafford began in 1967 and often found expression through letters.