Friday, April 25, 2008

William Stafford

One of my favorite poets is William Stafford. Among other things, he is remembered for writing a poem every day. He did another difficult thing when he was in his mid twenties. At that time he was expected to enlist and serve his country in one of the armed forces. He refused. During WWII he served time as a Conscientious Objector. That has always impressed me. That war was probably the most popular war in our history. Popular in the sense of having a lot of patriotic support. More popular even than the Revolutionary and Civil wars. That was a time of rationing fuel and food. And Stafford said no.

He refused because he was unwilling to kill or to participate where others were killing. He had to know at the time that the rest of his life would be lived in the shadow so to speak of that decision. But he was never loud about protesting war or anything else. He quietly went about his life pursuing what interested him: his wife and kids, teaching in Oregon, writing poetry and generally participating in the poetry community. In the early 1970s he served as Consultant to the Library of Congress. That position was later renamed to Poet Laureate. There are some quotes attributed to him that I remember:
  • "War is failure of imagination."
  • "Poetry is a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there."
  • "Justice will take a million intricate adjustments."
The second one I remember because it surprises me. Stafford's method as a writer is to be alive to the moment, to be attentive to the impulses of the language as it delivers words to him while he is seated quietly with paper in front of him and pen in hand. I can see what he means though because we live in the world of work, of running errands, buying groceries, sleeping, kissing, eating, etc. We can be alive to the work of writing a poem, but that does not require us to live in language or poetry. Still, when I read a poem like "Biography," it's hard for me to see how Stafford separates his life from poetry.
Two days were walking down the street,
one bright, one dark, and both my birthday,
glowing for my head. (Dark is delight for
me. Both my parents are dead.) That street

was the one we lived on, years ago - that is,
while they lived.

Two days left that place; after my birth
nobody saw two days together ever again,
my mother said; and my father said the same,
but they always liked both kinds and welcomed
dark and light; both glowed for their head,
while they lived.

The house they knew has opened;
it stands at large in the hills; its
door is the rain; its window, evening.
Today I bend for roof, have shelter
when it's cold, but that great house
arches for all, everywhere, for them, too,
while I live.

From The Way It Is, Graywolf Press, 1998 p. 183.

Stafford seems to be disclosing some very personal, even private information. I think there's more to it than that: he has made himself transparent, enabling me as reader to "see" his mother and father through him and to learn something about their family. He is (as poet) alive to the memory without sentimentality, and he is alive to the writing without living in poetry. When I first read it, I thought he was putting himself in the poem. After rereading it and thinking some more though, it seems more likely that he is telling me as a reader about himself and his parents, and he is honoring them by talking about them and the house in the manner that he does. Clearly the speaker of the poem is sharing a memory: until the third stanza, the verbs are all in the past tense. Then the poem turns, and the final lines give us the speaker's current relationship to the house he used to live in with his mother and father, as well as the relationship of the house to the rest of the world. As long as he lives, that house "arches for all, everywhere, for them, too..." With the last line, the speaker enters the poem. We aren't given information about the future of the house other than to know its availability as long as the speaker of the poem lives. That's where I get some confusion as to whether Stafford is living in poetry or not. Perhaps he is being a conscientious participant in his memory, his life and his future as a poet. He may have made an intricate adjustment there that I haven't seen yet.

1 comment:

Andrew Christ said...

Received in an e-mail:

I like when you say that he is being a conscientious participant in his memory, linking his conscientious objector status to this poem. He didn't want to participate in the war for the same reason he does want to use poetry to reflect on his life.

I think this poem, like "Believing in Iron," needs to be understood as a poem about the life cycle, though Koumanyaka's is more particular. I think, there's little personal disclosure in "Biography." I think it has the title it has to (bios -life- graphos writing-) to mark the fact of it's generalness. I feel the influence in it of ee cummings poem "anyone lived in a pretty how town" ( ). I think it might also have "The Way It Is" as a kind of brother poem (

All poets are concerned with memory, but when it's their dominant concern they become know as "poets of memory"--and Stafford was known as that. The house in this poem is the house of memory. What's cool to me is that once he lived in his parent's house, but now they live in his (while he's alive). This is kind of radical, and some would say elitist. Our ancestor's aren't automatically there for us. The great storehouse of collective memory is only there for those who make the kind of effort the poem itself represents, an effort to write life. But as you point out about him pointing out, it takes conscientious participation to build the house of memory and it must also fall down. The "dark day" that goes with him involves the fact that when he dies his parents will no longer have as capacious a house as he has provided for them, and so on.

Thanks for the chance to share some thoughts on your reflections...