William Stafford

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Cookbeach
Cook’s Beach, New Zealand

Every artist has her own way of working. For me there are a few fundamentals that anchor my art making: Daily practice is one, and a willingness to surrender to the process is another. Following that thread will take you where it will, often down surprising and unexpected side roads. Interfering with logic or willful cerebralism is rarely successful. As a result I have learned to shut down the mental chatter and just get out of the way.

Working in a manner that is personal and intuitive is a counterstance to the contemporary trends. But there are others who have spoken strongly to this way of working. One of them is the poet William Stafford (1914-1993) whose writing about his poetic practice resonates with me. His is an art making terrain that draws on references to the soul and spirit, and these transcendent aspects are referenced freely and frequently. “Art has its sacramental aspect,” he boldly asserted.

His poem The Way It Is expresses some of that sacramental sense that I feel as well:

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.

Stafford was well known for his commitment to write every day. He got up early, went for a run and then wrote at least one poem before going off to teach. His discipline was legendary. He was something of an outsider in poetic circles and aware that many people didn’t cotton to his “artist as mystic” views. In spite of being out of step with the prevalent postmodern mindset, he still had the generosity of spirit to not take offense. “There are so many things admirable people do not understand,” he offered.

This Stafford excerpt also speaks to the distance between his approach and current cultural trends:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and you don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our
star.

Stafford’s predispositions about creativity were neither fashionable nor easily defended in his métier of poetry, and those predilections are increasingly an outsider position in the world of current art commentary today. The majority of influencers and commentariats value a different approach that leans into irony, spectacle, objectivity, scientism, measurability and that suite of non-personal concerns such as the politics of identity, social commentary, edge seeking and shock.

Stafford’s approach operates on the other end of the spectrum of concerns:

I must be willing to fail…Thinking about such matters as social significance, positive values, consistency, etc., I resolutely disregard these. Something better, greater, is happening! I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on. I am making something new, something that has not been judged before.

After years as a painter it has become increasingly easier for me to see what fits and what does not. Stafford’s words on this are memorable: “The signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—/should be clear/the darkness around us is deep.”

This passage from Stafford also speaks to that alternate view in another way:

At the time, the writer is responsible for everything, and at the same time he is simply lost. He has to be willing to stay lost until what he finds—or what finds him—has the validity that the instant (with him as its sole representative) can recognize—at that moment he is transported, not because he wants to be, but because he can’t help it. Out of the wilderness of possibility comes a vine without a name, and his poem is growing with it.

Threads. Vines without names. Patterns that others have made that distract rather than enrich. The value of being lost. Art’s sacramental nature. He’s talking my language.

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William Stafford (Photo by Kim Stafford)

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.

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Bouuldersboat
Solitary boat man on the river in Hampi, India

When I Met My Muse

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off – they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

–William Stafford

When a friend posted this short piece by William Stafford online, it came into my consciousness as a fully formed image of great power. Glasses that were still singing. A voice belling forth. Bent sunlight. A ceiling that arches and makes more space. Every glance a salvation. It’s all there, a tableau so clear and so powerful that I read it through ten more times.

I adore Stafford as a poet as well as an exemplar of living (I’ve listed my previous blog posts about him and his work at the bottom of this page.) Unpretentious with a quiet demeanor, he didn’t publish his poetry until he was in his late 40′s. His creative gait through life is epitomized by these words from an interview: “I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know, whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along.” That description juxtaposed with his Muse encounter speaks to both the surrender and the salvation of his life’s poetic practice.

Two other writers offer an expansion to this Staffordian backdrop. One is David Esterly, author of a thoughtful book called The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. A former academic who quotes Yeats and Plotinus with ease, Esterly became a world class wood carver who was asked to repair the carvings destroyed by fire in Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court. (Because he is an American, this was a bit of a surprise request.) His prowess with language is evident in this book:

A carver begins as a god and ends as a slave. I concocted this aphorism long ago and couldn’t stop using it. It was born of experience. This trajectory repeated itself with each successive project. In all of them the balance of power progressively shifted from the maker to the made. The wood began as a submissive, put-upon thing, then gradually came to life, like Pygmalion’s statue. The carver’s ideas steadily lost their power, while the object grew imperious…You start as a godlike creator, imposing ideas on a passive medium, and you end up grounded in the life of this world, taking instructions from the thing in front of you.

The transmogrification that takes place in the act of making is a key theme in Esterly’s account. It correlates with a passage in the ever insightful Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirschfield:

Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence…Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away…At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. This may explain why the creative is so often descried as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in”.

I’m not sure how to describe these experiences in terms that are linear, measured and easily understood. I sometimes get tired trying and give up, dropping into those easy catch alls of the mystical and/or the magical. But you just can’t throw concepts like those around willy nilly without getting yourself into some trouble, especially at cocktail parties and academic conferences.

Is there a middle ground, a way to express my own way of looking at things? I found some help by reworking a quote* from Frederick Buechner:

The act of making points to that area of human experience where in one way or another we come upon mystery as a summons to take a journey; where we sense meanings no less overwhelming because they can be only hinted at in myth and ritual; where we glimpse a destination that we can never know fully until we reach it. We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe.

That captures some of it.

___________

*The original quote from Frederick Buechner: “Religion as a word points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage; where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can be only hinted at in myth and ritual; where he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it. We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe.”

Previous Slow Muse posts on William Stafford:

Being Awake
The Strange Notes of our Wildness
Sages of Silence and Fear
That Form in the Grass
Lean Out a Window
Wing, Fin, Flake
Turn to the Open Sea and Let Go
Stillness, in Color
This, Now

Note: Thanks to Desiree Fitzgibbon for introducing me to The Lost Carving—as well as many other great books—and to Jill Fineberg for the Buechner quote. Jill randomly includes quotes at the bottom of her emails, and the timing on this one was perfect.

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Being Awake


Nee Nej 2, from a new series of paintings I worked on this winter

I’ve posted this poem here already, several years ago. It resurfaced in me this morning and it feels like a perfect fit for the mood of my mind and spirit, heavy with the events of the last week. But that undeniable connection happens frequently for me with William Stafford’s words since my love of his work runs deep. I hope it speaks to you too.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

–William Stafford

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The flying foxes (bats) in Sydney’s Hyde Park. They are an extreme statement of wildness very close at hand.

It is not skill, knowledge, intellect,
good luck or bad, but choosing
to feel the strange notes
of our wildness,
for there is not nothingness
despite the easy magic
of despair.

Another moment spent in the company of Terrance Keenan (along with a few others I’ve had in the past, here and here.) The “strange notes of our wildness” as well as the “easy magic” of our darker days—these are both zones I know well.

I am coupling this with another deep dive poem by the good and gentle William Stafford. He speaks with a sage’s measured gait, cutting right past everything that is moving so fast that it stays on the surface of things and can’t get seep down into the root system. I just love this man’s point of view.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

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A painter and a poet. Martin and Stafford have been (and continue to be) elemental influences on me.

***

Agnes Martin (Photo: Charles R. Rushton)

To discover the conscious mind in a world where intellect is held to be valuable requires solitude, quite a lot of solitude. We have been very strenuously conditioned against solitude. To be alone is considered to be a grievous and dangerous condition.

So I beg you to recall in detail any times when you were alone. You will find the fear that we have been taught is not one fear, but many different fears. When you discover what they are they will be overcome. Most people have never been alone enough to feel these fears. But even without the experience of them they dread them.

–Agnes Martin

***


William Stafford

For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot – air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there.

–William Stafford

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A Message from the Wanderer

Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occured to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.

Inside, I dreamed of constellations—
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.

Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as—often, in light, on the open hills—
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then—even before you see—
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.

That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.

Now—these few more words, and then I’m
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.

There will be that form in the grass.

–William E. Stafford

This poem speaks to an exquisite kind of redemptive hope, one that is akin to the feelings I am carrying after a weekend spent with friends who have been with me for most of my adult life. Stafford’s image of a form in the grass is such a redolent metaphor for that moment “when all we have said and all we have hoped will be all right.” Blessed be that day.

Oh, and be sure to just remember your name.

groupw
Jack’s Place Gang

jpgang
After felling a tree

jp
Jack’s Place, 2009

WIP
Inside, it’s a work in progress (like all of us)

viewfromJP2
Stream view, from the rear of the house

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window

Just Thinking

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.

–William Stafford

His work just keeps speaking to me, over and over again.

For a sampling of other poems by Stafford that I have posted on this blog, click here.

Thank you to Whiskey River for bringing this one to my attention.

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Wing, Fin, Flake

white_fin

Wind Gift

For you, something not put
even in prayer.
Like broad wings that swim thick
under your fall
And won’t let you drop
through the air.

Or the same thing under the sea
where your boat goes.
A teeming companionship
of life too full for a hollow
—the way a canyon’s alive
when it snows.

That’s the way, under and over
and all around—
Miraculous out of the void
All for you—
so wild the eye roves
wing, fin, flake
nor touches the ground.

–William Stafford

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water
Coastline south of San Francisco, March 2008

Security

Tomorrow will have an island. Before night
I always find it. Then on to the next island.
These places hidden in the day separate
and come forward if you beckon.
But you have to know they are there before they exist.
Some time there will be a tomorrow without any island.
So far, I haven’t let that happen, but after
I’m gone others may become faithless and careless.
Before them will tumble the wide unbroken sea,
and without any hope they will stare at the horizon.
So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go.

–William Stafford

Stafford’s work has been speaking to me deeply for years. This one feels particularly poignant right about now.

Biography of William Stafford from Poets.org:

William Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1914. He received a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Kansas at Lawrence and, in 1954, a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. During the Second World War, Stafford was a conscientious objector and worked in the civilian public service camps-an experience he recorded in the prose memoirDown My Heart (1947). He married Dorothy Hope Frantz in 1944; they had four children.

In 1948 Stafford moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College. Though he traveled and read his work widely, he taught at Lewis and Clark until his retirement in 1980. His first major collection of poems, Traveling Through the Dark, was published when Stafford was forty-eight. It won the National Book Award in 1963. He went on to publish more than sixty-five volumes of poetry and prose. Among his many honors and awards were a Shelley Memorial Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Western States Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry. In 1970, he was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a position currently known as the Poet Laureate).

Stafford’s poems are often deceptively simple. Like Robert Frost’s, however, they reveal a distinctive and complex vision upon closer examination. James Dickey, writing in his book Babel to Byzantium, notes that Stafford’s “natural mode of speech is a gentle, mystical, half-mocking and highly personal daydreaming about the western United States.” 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). William Stafford died at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, on August 28, 1993.

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