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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





In 1972, five years before driving to Missoula, Montana, to interview Richard Hugo, I was a student in the Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado.  I was driving into Denver with my friend Reg Saner to conduct a Poets-in-the-Schools program.  We had turned off U.S. 36 onto I-25 and were heading straight toward downtown Denver when, in one of those moments James Hillman discusses in The Soul's Code, dictated, perhaps, by one's daemon, I realized what I should do with my studies ÷ with my life.  I should drop the pathetic idea of doing a thesis in medieval literature to please some father figure and instead do a thesis in twentieth-century American literature, about William Stafford.  My thesis would be immediately publishable, for there were no books about him.  Best of all, I could drive out to Lake Oswego and interview him for the book.  I could actually meet him.
    The first time I met him was in July 1972 at his house.  He was fifty-eight.  It was thrilling to meet him, but it was daunting, too, because he was so much like my own father, Alan.  Wiry, elfin, with the face of a fox, Stafford was curious about everything around him, absolutely alert.  Alan had graduated from Harvard with a B.S. in chemistry in 1925, the year after Stanley Kunitz had.  They both graduated summa cum laude.  All my life I had been surrounded by Bell Labs physicists gossiping about who was in line for the Nobel Prize this year, who was at Cal Tech, who was at Cambridge at the Cavendish Laboratory, who was at M.I.T.  (The gossip of scientists is depressingly similar to the gossip of writers.)  Like the Bell Labs scientists, Bill was on the leading edge of his field, lecturing everywhere, everywhere in demand.  He was a genius.  From being in the presence of Bell Labs geniuses for my entire childhood, I'd learned to recognize them, like a bird-watcher.  I had to.  It was a kind of survival technique, to avoid making a fool of oneself in the presence of some of the most high-powered intellectuals in the world.  Some of them had worked with J. Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project.  Los Alamos had been their vortex.
    In his book Alone with America, Richard Howard refers to the "arrogant otherness" of the persona in Stafford's first poetry collection, West of Your City.  It has been pointed out by the poet/critic Judith Kitchen that "West of Your City" alludes to Frost's title North of Boston.  "Your city" is Boston.  "You" is Frost.  Howard, the quintessential New Yorker and European traveler, is right, but only partially.  Stafford's "otherness" wasn't arrogant.  It was the otherness of every major mind I've had the privilege to observe.  It was the neutral, appraising, canny posture of intellectuality ÷ an appetite that is aesthetic, amoral, and endlessly curious.  And cold.  What must have it been like having Stafford as a father?  Not easy.  It is now legendary how Stafford, so as not to disturb his family, would get up well before dawn to write.  He described the routine in his poem "Mornings":

        rested, the brain begins to burn
        and glow like a coal in the dark,
        early÷four in the morning, cold, with
        frost on the lawn.

    We are familiar, too, with Stafford's cooperative venture with his son Kim: the book Braided Apart.  We are less familiar with the fact that Stafford's eldest son, Brett, killed himself.  Brett must have felt as I did: compared to Alan, I would never measure up.  Virtually Alan's last words to me ÷ we were discussing Wittgenstein ÷ were, "Son, until you know German, you'll never understand Western culture."
    When Stafford's son Kim visited Kansas State in the fall of 1998, as the primary speaker in a conference in honor of William Stafford, he and I talked about Brett's suicide in 1988.  Kim said that the suicide had been about a love affair and that his father had said of Brett: "He wasn't mean enough."
    Meanwhile, the mistaken identification of Stafford as a "regional" poet continues: In the New York Times obituary of August 31, 1993, the headline read, "William Edgar Stafford, Professor and Poet of the West, Dies at 79."  The writer, Wolfgang Saxon, wrote:

        Both his life and his writing looked westward or to the Northwest,
        and he found his themes in small-town family life and in nature.
        His work was infused with the vast expanses of desert and prairie,
        mountain ranges and sky.

    Like a fox, like a wildcat, Stafford lived his life in camouflage.  He camouflaged his true nature.  A poem which for me epitomizes this camouflage is his poem "For the Governor" in Someday, Maybe:

   For the Governor

        Heartbeat by heartbeat our governor tours
        the state, and before a word and after a word
        over the crowd the world speaks to him,
        thin as a wire.  And he knows inside
        each word, too, that anyone says,
        another word lurks, and inside that...

        Sometimes we fear for him: he, or someone,
        must act for us all.  Across our space
        we watch him while the country leans
        on him: he bears time's tall demand,
        and beyond our state he must think the shore
        and beyond that the waves and the miles and
        the waves.

On the surface, the poem is about a man campaigning for the governorship of a state like Kansas.  But read closely, the poem yields a second meaning.  The poem is about the relation of the mind to the body.  "Across our space / we watch him while the country leans / on him: he bears time's tall demand."  The mind is able to conceive of its end, the body's eventual death.  Moreover, the mind is able to conceive of itself: consciousness of consciousness is what makes us particularly human.  This, the poem's true issue ÷ Stafford's intellectuality ÷ has been camouflaged.  I asked him about a female figure named Ella who appears in some of his poems about rural Kansas life.  He remarked that "Ella" is a female third-person pronoun.
    A second well-known poem, "Report from a far place," camouflages its sophistication in a way that is also typically Staffordian.  The poem reads:

        Making these word things to
        step on across the world, I
        could call them snowshoes.

        They creak, sag, bend, but
        hold, over the great deep cold,
        and they turn up at the toes.

        In war or city or camp
        they could save your life;
        you can muse them by the fire.

        Be careful though: they
        burn, or don't burn, in their own
        strange way, when you say them.

At first glance, this poem appears to be about writing, "making word things."  Read closely, however, it appears to be more about reading than about writing, especially the lines "In war or city or camp / they could save your life; / you can muse them by the fire."  The cleverest line, though, is the offhanded remark "and they turn up at the toes."  Often, in Stafford poems, casual asides are profound.  If we think of the way in which the turned-up toes of skis or snowshoes deflect the snow, deflect the world, we find a metaphor for the way in which the abstract nature of words deflects the world from us and thus keeps us from suffocating in existence, allowing us to ride "on top of" things momentarily.  The title puzzles us, until we remember that in Stafford's symbolic vocabulary "near" means "kindred" and "far" means "different."  The "far" place which imposes "word things" upon the world is the mind.
    There is another side of Stafford, though, that dispenses with camouflage.  It is not affable.  It is fierce.  We glimpse this side, at the end of "Our City Is Guarded by Automatic Rockets," where he says:

        There is a place behind our hill so real
        it makes me turn my head, no matter.  There
        in the last thicket lies the cornered cat
        saved by its claws, now ready to spend
        all that is left of the wilderness, embracing
        its blood.  And that is the way I will spit
        life, at the end of any trail where I smell any hunter.

The last piece Stafford published before his death was a review of the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forche.  His approach to the anthology is prickly:

        But there are inherent problems in a collection like this.
    For instance, the individual glimpses that create the distinction
    of poetry put a strain on the thesis of the book; books that
    buckle down to the thesis can hardly attain the shiver of the
    unexpected that distinguishes lively discourse.  We can be
    informed; we can encounter the thoughts and emotions of
    significant people...but it takes something more to validate
    the poetry experience.

And later in the review he writes:

    A further problem above achieving authenticity in a survey
    like this one lurks everywhere in the selections: quality is
    primary, but the need for wide representation put a strain
    on that criterion.  And how vividly do you have to suffer
    in order to qualify?
        I feel a bump when the explanatory note says, "the Germans
    decided."  All Germans?  And similarly when Carolyn Forche
    says, "My new work seemed controversial to my American
    contemporaries."  (Who, me?)  The labels in the book...put a
    torque on me, snagged my attention, kept me wary of living on
    the emotional high of atrocity hunger.

    Morally and intellectually exacting as Stafford's mind was, there was a softer side to him.  I glimpsed it most vividly in the summer of 1987 when he and I were on the staff of the Port Townsend Writers Conference.  Several of us were being driven back to Fort Worden State Park from dinner at a restaurant.  Stafford was in the front seat, Marvin Bell was beside me in the middle seat.  As we drove past a brightly lit bar that was the students' hangout, Marvin called to the driver to let him out there.  Stafford burst out to Marvin: "Must you?"  It was a motherly gesture, pure reflex, like a mother instinctively reaching out to stop a toddler from walking into a busy street.  I realized that he loved Marvin.
    When, the day after Stafford suffered his heart attack at home, Henry Taylor called me with the news, my first thought was, "How lucky to go like that, that cleanly," and that Stafford had indeed led a lucky life.  He himself had told me as much, years ago at Stephens College, when I had invited him there.  I don't remember what I was mumbling to him, but he suddenly faced me and glared at me, pure wildcat: "You don't understand."  He hissed it. "I was just lucky."  He took nothing for granted.  And I thought, also, of Willa Cather's famous story "Neighbor Rosicky":

    The old farmer looked up at the doctor with a gleam of
    amusement in his queer, triangular-shaped eyes....  Rosicky's
    face had the habit of looking interested ÷ suggested a
    contented disposition and a reflective quality that was gay
    rather than grave.  This gave him a certain detachment,
    the easy manner of an onlooker and observer.

The end of the story describes Rosicky's friendship with his daughter-in-law, Polly:

    She had a sudden feeling that nobody in the world, not her
    mother, not Rudolph, or anyone really loved her as much as
    old Rosicky did.  It perplexed her.  She sat frowning and
    trying to puzzle it out.  It was as if Rosicky had a special gift
    for loving people, something that was like an ear for music
    or an eye for colour.  It was quiet, unobtrusive; it was merely
    there....  After he dropped off to sleep, she sat holding his
    warm, broad, flexible brown hand.  She had never seen another
    in the least like it.  She wondered if it wasn't a kind of gipsy hand,
    it was so alive and quick and light in its communications ÷ very
    strange in a farmer.  Nearly all of the farmers she knew had huge
    lumps of fists, like mauls, or they were knotty and bony and
    uncomfortable looking, with stiff fingers.  But Rosicky's hand
    was like quicksilver, flexing, muscular,...it was a warm brown
    hand, with some cleverness in it,...and something else which
    Polly could only call "gipsy-like" ÷ something nimble and
    lively and sure, in the way that animals are.

I would like to imagine that William Stafford died as Rosicky did, as described by Willa Cather:

        After he had taken a few stitches, the cramp began in his
    chest, like yesterday.  He put his pipe down cautiously on the
    window-sill and bent over to ease the pull.  No use ÷ he had
    better try to get to bed if he could.  He rose and groped his way
    across the familiar floor, which was rising and falling like the
    deck of a ship.  At the door he fell.  When Mary came in, she
    found him lying there, and the moment she touched him she knew
    that he was gone.

In my experience, Cather is the only author to describe accurately, without sentimentality, in the figure of Rosicky, the mysterious, inexplicable quality of human goodness ÷ its elusiveness, its disinterestedness, its absence of vanity.  William Stafford understood all this.  He lived it.  Determined to keep the truth of his genius from embarrassing us, he camouflaged it as carefully, as considerately as he could.

© by Jonathan Holden


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