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.

Thursday, April 13, 2006


In the wind of years

Spring slowly emerges from the earth here. Days washed in a languorous haze, or, when the haze melts away, huge splashes of sunlight. During the days, at work, I look out the gray-tinted windows of the office building where I work and I watch the light falling across the roofs of the buildings downtown. Cool dewy nights, chilly breeze at the bus stop in the mornings. Incessant chirp of sparrows. Some days, and nights, it rains, though not much so far. Vast waves of heat, rivers of wind, over the central plains of the continent. A phrase from a poem runs through my mind, lingering: " the speed of springtime..." The phrase is from a poem by Haitian poet Rene Depestre (the title of which I don't have in front of me) translated by Jack Hirschman (currently Poet Laureate of San Francisco), published many years ago in the magazine Alcatraz edited by Stephen Kessler.

During the past month the streets of the United States filled with people the government says don't belong here, angrily and defiantly and calmly and joyously announcing to the government and to the world that they do belong here for the same reason anybody else does: we're here. National borders are property lines drawn on a map for the profit of whoever holds the property deed, at the expense of the comfort and survival of whoever doesn't hold the deed. (Article here, much more on this if you go searching.)

Also, during the past couple of months, the streets of France filled with workers and students protesting a new labor law allowing employers to fire young workers "without cause" (as legal business calls it), workers on strike shutting down the daily working of commerce in France. Within the past week or so, perhaps haunted by the spectre of 1968, the French government announced they were backing away from the new labor law. (Articles here and here.)

Also today, word that Ford Motor Company will close the Ford plant across the river in St. Paul sometime in 2008. Currently around 1800 people work there.

Some lines from the poet Paul Eluard (in Uninterrupted Poetry: Selected Writings, translated by Lloyd Alexander, published 1975 by New Directions):

They had put in order
In the name of riches
Their misery their beloved

They gnawed away the flowers and the smiles
They found a heart only at the end of their rifles

They did not understand the curses of the poor
Of the poor carefree tomorrow

Sunless dreams made them eternal
But to change the cloud to mud
They went down they looked no longer at the sky

All their night their death their fine shadow misery
Misery for the others

We shall forget these indifferent enemies
(From the poem "Dawn Dissolves the Monsters").

Eluard, born in 1895, was a signer of many of the early twentieth century surrealist manifestos. By the 1930's he had become active in the political left, and supported the anti-fascist defense of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. During the military and political occupation of France by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Eluard was active in the Resistance movement. At some point during those years he joined the Communist Party. His poetry moved away from surrealism; he wrote stunning passionate poetry of politics and love. He died in 1952. From "Seven Poems in Love and War" (in the above-mentioned collection):

In the name of the perfect profound face
In the name of the eyes I look at
And the mouth I kiss
For today and for always

In the name of buried hope
In the name of tears in the darkness
In the name of sorrow that brings laughter
In the name of laughter that brings fear

In the name of laughter in the street
Of the gentleness that links our hands
In the name of fruits covering flowers
On an earth good and beautiful

In the name of the men in prison
In the name of the women deported
In the name of all our comrades
Martyred and massacred
For not accepting the shadow

We must drain our rage
And make the iron rise up
To preserve the high image
Of the innocent everywhere hunted
And who will triumph everywhere.
Also right now I'm reading some of Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos, translated by Jack Agueros (published 1997 by Curbstone Press). Julia de Burgos (1914-1953) is one of the giants of poetry in the twentieth century. Born in Puerto Rico, she was a poet and journalist who traveled widely, was prominent in world literary circles, and became active and involved in the revolutionary political struggles of her time. Her poems embrace the massive beauty and wildness of the sea and sky sun and wind, plunge headlong through the passions of love, and (especially in the poems written in her later years) burn bright with the fire of her political commitment.

I'll write more about Julia de Burgos at greater length in a future article here. For now, opening the book at random, here a a few lines, from the poem "Presence of Love on the Island" (written in Trinidad, Cuba):

Here my heart says "I love you"...
in the unbridled solitude of the island
coming through the tranquil eyes of the landscape.

The sea sometimes ascends the gravestone of the hills.
There it is green sky, as if wanting to rise to my hands.
The hill has not grown higher than a shoot.
The earth looks and grows.
They follow the warbles greeting the birds,
Here my heart, galloping the area,
says "I love you" in the green language of the woods. [...]

[...] A returned peace swings my spirit,
and my steps fall, as if dead, to the air.
Between the hills and the sea, through levels of pedigree,
Trinidad!, your streets greet me from legends.

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