Friday, June 11, 2010

William Stafford

Here is the cover of one of my most prized possessions, the poetry collection Some Haystacks Don't Even Have Any Needle that I have mentioned a few times before. As you can see below, the title of the book is taken from the short poems by William Stafford that appear on the final page of the anthology. In the Spring of 1977, Stafford gave a poetry reading at Northeast Missouri State, where my friend Milly and I had the privilege of interviewing him for our campus literary magazine and requesting his autograph:

I remember Stafford telling us student editors that writing is a "conversation among friends," friends talking: "Writing comes out of talk . . . from talking and deciding to write. Everyone can do it; everyone does it all the time. Writing is simply deciding to sit down and do it and work at it often." He said that writing can be a way "of helping readers see other options and different ways to observe life," as he hauntingly illustrates in the following poem:

A Ritual to Read to Each Other
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

I especially like Stafford's insistence in this poem that "awake people be awake." Eudora Welty makes a similar point in her story "Livvie." It should be so obvious, but apparently is not, since the poets and storytellers have to keep reminding us: "that people never could be sure of anything as long as one of them was asleep and other other awake." Back in 1977, Stafford concluded our interview with the thought that writing is a way "of talking and thinking about the world and of learning to talk and think even more about the world."

To do that, of course, you need to be awake, wide awake, in touch and in tune with that "remote important region in all who talk."

William Stafford, 1914 - 1993
American poet, recipient of National Book Award in 1963
for Traveling Through the Dark
United States Poet Laureate, 1970 - 71
Poet Laureate of Oregon 1975 - 89

P.S. Stafford's poetry has been called gentle, quotidian, focused on the ordinary" -- just right for this blog! (See also 9 January 2010, 26 February 2010, 18 November 2010.

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