Thursday, April 27, 2006


Reading William Stafford

Lately I've been reading some essays and articles by poet William Stafford. I've always liked Stafford's poetry--I first read some of his poems more than 30 years ago--, I've liked his uncluttered unpretentious approach, the voice in his poems forceful and calm, a kind of concentrated plain speaking.

Many of his poems give the impression that he (or whoever is the 'speaker" in the poem) is simply talking, as though the poem had just picked up a piece of conversation, something somebody had said in a room, by a window, at the side of a road, and placed it on a page. His poems are not quite a simple as that--the reasons they are effective are more subtle, the speech quality of the poems is just a little more deliberate, the kind of speech a person says only after considered thought.

I met Bill Stafford a couple of times, summers in 1987 and 1990 at the Port Townsend Writer's Conference, just met him casually and never got to know him well. I wasn't in the classes he taught, but he was there at the conference teaching each time, and mingling among the conference participants. In that respect he was somewhat an exception--most of the "faculty" poets at the conference spent most of their time (when they weren't teaching or reading or lecturing) away from the "student" poets, in the cottages reserved for them or somewhere else.

Bill ate his meals in the cafeteria with everyone else, he came to the open readings that gathered in the late afternoon, he was always easily approachable. (A few other invited poets mingled similarly with the participants, the couple of times I was there--Margaret Randall and Etheridge Knight come to mind, and a couple of the fiction writers--though they were the exceptions.)

William Stafford died in 1993 in his late 70's. His poetry continues to speak to me with the familiarity and immediacy of a living conversation.

His essays reveal the deliberative power and concentration of his thought, the complexity and the capacity for exploring uncertainty, that moved in him together with his open and welcoming manner. Here are a couple of short passages from various of his essays that have particularly caught my attention, that I've gone back to and read again, in the past couple of weeks as I've been reading him.
The process of writing that I experience has little connection with the formulations I most often hear. Where words come from, into consciousness, baffles me. Speaking or writing, the words bounce instantaneously into their context, and I am victimized by them, rather than controlling them. They do not wait for my selection; they volunteer. True, I can reject them, but my whole way of writing induces easy acceptance--at first--of any eager volunteer. I want to talk about these volunteers, but first want to consider another reason for trying carefully to set the record straight, about attitudes toward language. The point concerns how a writer feels about language, in general. Many opine that a writer, and particularly a poet, for some reason, must love language; often there is even a worshipful attitude assumed. I have noticed this assumption with particular attention because it happens that insofar as I can assess my own attitudes in relation to others' I have an unusually intense distrust of language. What people say or write comes to me attenuated of thinned by my realization that talk merely puts into the air an audio counterpart of mysterious, untrustworthy, confused events in the creature making the sounds. "Truth," or "wonder," or any kind of imaginative counterpart of "absolute realities"--these I certainly do not expect in human communication.
The above passage is from Stafford's essay "Some Arguments Against Good Diction," in his essay collection Writing the Australian Crawl published 1978 by University of Michigan Press. (All excerpts quoted here are from the above collection.)

And, from William Stafford's essay "The Practice of Composing in Language":
But to live your writing life by assuming that certain "norms" have been established and thereby made operative for any writer--such a stance reverses the actual: writers recognize opportunities; if a group or tradition recognizes certain opportunities and makes that recognition into a "norm," the range of options is not changed. Anyone may come along and move into composing the language by means of hints and hunches that occur to an individual. All of our friends have norms and other habits; but the part of an artists is to make any present action the occasion for emergence from present potentials. Norms are for talking about art; opportunities are for artists. And back of any "norm" is speech; how talk goes will live--whether neglected by intent or not.
And, from his essay "Writing: The Discovery of Daily Experience":
Not a few, but everyone, makes art. There is no art beyond the sensibility of the people confronting it: art is an interaction between object and beholder. The idea of a human being forced to concede the superiority of a work of art without in fact being able to participate in judging that quality is a surrealistic idea. [...] In my area, the coyotes are still the best poets.
A sampling of a few of William Stafford's wonderful poems can be found online in the website News from Nowhere, here. A substantial print collection is Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (originally published 1977 by Harper & Row). The Academy of American Poets page on Stafford, here, gives a brief biographical note about him, and has links to other sites featuring his poems and other related material.
If you haven't read William Stafford, I encourage you to go have a conversation with him.

I love Stafford's poetry in its plain everydayness -- but his essays were what really took the top of my head off, once upon a time. They were probably the first essays I ever read that talked about *being a writer* as opposed to the craft of individual poems -- he talked about the big issues of how to write, not just about how to push words around on the page, and that was a huge eye-opener for me. I truly regret that I never got to meet him.
His poem, Ask Me is one of my all time favorites. I have it memorized and just absolutely find it moving. I ordered a book of his essays too. I'm really looking forward to it. Thanks, lyle!
Stafford has been a huge inspiration for me both as a poet and a nascent host of a poetry venue. His essays (and the interviews) in "Crossing Unmarked Snow" were exactly what I needed to read after have been exposed to the (in my view) overly competitive nature of the contemporary poetry scene. Stafford was and still is (if you read his books) a rare steward for poetry.

Thanks for your article and the selection of quotes.
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