Early Morning is a memoir of William Stafford written by his son Kim Stafford. This book is so singularly satisfying, so full of wisdom I can’t put it down. Is there another case of a larger-than-life writer whose story has been told by his or her child who just happens to also be a masterful writer? I don’t know of any. It was sagacity in Bill to identify Kim as his literary executor.
It is hard to know how to begin sharing what is so memorable and moving about this book. I have been a passionate fan of Stafford’s poetry for years, and learning more about his life is intoxicating. There is just so much to share! But maybe I will take a cue from Kim’s approach: His telling of his father’s story is neither chronological nor predictable. The chapters unfold on their own terms, without the imposition of forced structure or inhibiting lineage. It feels organic and intimate.
In the spirit of that kind of quiet listening, here is just one passage of many that I long to have others read with me:
He said at one point, “I don’t want to write good poems. I want to write inevitable poems—to write the things I will write, given who I am.” Again, I am reminded of the Tao Te Ching: “Seeing into darkness is clarity. / Knowing how to yield is strength. / Use your own light / and return to the source of light. / This is called practicing eternity…”
This way of acknowledging the quiet voice is in keeping with his practice as a writer—accepting the beginning line, the glimmer of an idea, the clumsy opening as a way of honoring “what the world is trying to be.” Someone asked him once what his favorite poem was, out of all he had written. “I love all my children,” he said, “but I would trade everything I have ever written for the next thing.”
As a writer, he was a mother to beginnings. The “next thing” may be a kind of latent epiphany ready to be born. A friend told me my father’s “imagination was tuned to the moment when epiphanies were just about to come into being.” At such a moment, ambition could be fatal to what we seek. Take a deep breath and wait. What seeks you may then appear.
This is in keeping with the way Stafford worked, his well known habit of getting up early to do his writing before the obligations of the day set in.
He said once the field of writing will never be crowded—not because people can’t do important work, but because they don’t think they can. This way of writing is available to anyone who wishes to rise and listen, to put words together without fear of either failure or achievement. You wake. You find a stove where you make something warm. You have a light that leaves much of the room dark. You settle in a place you have worn with the friendly shape of your body. You receive your own breath, recollection, the blessings of your casual gaze…”There’s a thread you follow,” my father wrote.
Apropos, it is this poem by his father that Kim chose as the book’s epigram.
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.