Sunday, February 2, 2014

Happy Birthday, William Stafford

January 17 was the birthday of poet William Stafford. I like this guy. His life had some commonality with my own, and our family histories overlapped some as well. I was privileged to meet him twice in my life, and he has long been a mentor to me through the values expressed and upheld in his poetry and writing.

The Writer's Almanac noted his birthday:
Today is the birthday of poet William Edgar Stafford (books by this author), born in Hutchinson, Kansas (1914). Among his best-known books are The Rescued Year (1966), Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (1977), Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation (1978), and An Oregon Message (1987).
During the Second World War, he was a conscientious objector. He refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army. From 1940 to 1944, he was interned as a pacifist in civilian public service camps in Arkansas and California where he fought fires and built roads. He wrote about the experience in the 94-page prose memoir Down In My Heart (1947), which opens with the question, "When are men dangerous?"

And you can find an excellent biography by the Poetry Foundation HERE.

Stafford was a Kansas boy who found a home in the West. I was excited to learn a few years ago after moving to Washington State that he had written a poem cycle called the Methow River Poems. The Methow is a beautiful river that runs not too far from here, and Stafford's poems, seven in all, are printed on porcelain plaques set in locations along Cascades Highway 20, which parallels the river.

These are their names and locations:
1) Time for Serenity, Anyone? --where the Methow River meets the Columbia
2) From the Wild People --between the towns of Methow and Carlton
3) Ask Me --north of the ranger station in Winthrop
4) Is This Feeling About the West Real? --also north of the ranger station in Winthrop
5) Where We Are --near the suspension footbridge, south of Mazama
6) Silver Star --in front of Silver Star mountain
7) A Valley Like This --at the scenic overlook in Washington's pass.

And here is No. 5.

The Methow River, near No. 5

by William Stafford

Fog in the morning here
will make some of the world far away
and the near only a hint. But rain
will feel its blind progress along the valley,
tapping to convert one boulder at a time
into a glistening fact. Daylight will
love what came.
Whatever fits will be welcome, whatever
steps back in the fog will disappear
and hardly exist. You hear the river
saying a prayer for all that’s gone.
Far over the valley there is an island
for everything left; and our own island
will drift there too, unless we hold on,
unless we tap like this: “Friend,
are you there? Will you touch when
you pass, like the rain?”

I also enjoyed this account called On the Stafford Trail by Janet and Edward Granger-Happ.

Here are a couple more of my favorite Stafford poems. Thanks, Bill. And Happy Birthday.

by William Stafford
Got up on a cool morning. Leaned out a window.
No cloud, no wind. Air that flowers held
for awhile. Some dove somewhere.

Been on probation most of my life. And
the rest of my life been condemned. So these moments
count for a lot--peace, you know.

Let the bucket of memory down into the well,
bring it up. Cool, cool minutes. No one
stirring, no plans. Just being there.

This is what the whole thing is about. 


by William Stafford

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason--
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all--my only swerving--,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

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