Standing with Stafford

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

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.

23 Replies to “Standing with Stafford”

  1. Love this, Deborah!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Nancy.

  2. this was a piece of heaven landing in my computer screen today – thank you!

  3. He’s speaking my language, too, and with perfect timing his message answers my heart.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you for responding. Always means so much to find other people who resonate with my view of things!

  4. thank you for Stafford and his thoughts. They nourish me.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      He was a gifted poet and a remarkable human being. His way nourishes me too. Thanks for you comment.

  5. And you’re speaking mine! Thank you for another resonant and thoughtful post.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you so much Jane, I really appreciate your words.

    2. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Jane. I love having a tribe of like-minded people.

  6. Ann Dibble Call says:

    Deborah, you are so articulate!

    Not only in art but in life……..a truth…….if we are true to who we are, we will hold to that thread. Fortunate are those who find it and understand that although it may be impossible to explain to others, it must be followed. You have shared with us a profound truth….intuition, one’s own star. a “surrender to the process”, a road which is grassy and does indeed want wear…..

    You do make me think……always!

  7. Deborah:
    Thank you for this!
    A very timely post, as I diverge from my prior path in my art.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Binnie, I am not up to date on this divergence of which you speak. I would love to hear more. Thanks for your comment here.

  8. I’m bursting with gratitude to you for the way you speak my heart Deborah. And for taking me back to Cook’s Beach this morning …

  9. deborahbarlow says:

    My favorite Kiwi! Thank you dear MLS for connecting with me. Ah Cook’s Beach…what a magical place. Love you!

  10. As I think you know, Stafford is among my favorites. I have shared “The Way It Is” with many, and the other quotes you post here are among those I’ve copied and re-read and shared often as well. I particularly like what he has to say about failure. It’s awfully difficult to succeed, I think, if failing is feared.

    Kim Stafford’s book about his father is wonderful.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I know we share this mutual love, and I am so glad to be in that fan club with you. I love Kim’s book, and I just picked up another–The Answers are Inside the Mountain, edited by Paul Merchant and Vincent Wixon. I never grow tired of him. Thank you so much for your comment, and so true about fearing failure. It’s a killer of the creative life.

  11. Ravenna Taylor says:

    A wonderful post, thank you.

  12. I’ve always been a fan of his work, and of his writing about writing. I can see, now, how his thinking might align with producing visual or plastic arts…not just poetry.

  13. Thank you for this post. I just finished reading ‘Early Morning – Remembering my Father’ by Stafford’s son Kim. Graywolf press. My copy is now fat with dogears and little plastic flags. Highly recommend it to anyone who is seriously practicing one of the arts.

  14. I love Stafford, and I love this post. I just finished reading “Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford.” by Kim Stafford a couple of weeks ago. I saved your post until I had time to read it. Great timing. And as always, excellent reflections. Thank you, Deborah.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Luke, I love that book so much. I think Kim is a gifted writer as well, very different from his father. I am so glad you love his work. It is primal stuff for me and many of us who are in that path. Thanks for your comment!

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