If I was a better man and a better writer I would try to be William Stafford, who got all the words right and lived well and set a good example. Most people hate poetry, or don’t know anything about it — they imagine effete cloud-like wanderers among daffodils, finding new rhymes and anapests strewn about like worm dirt. They don’t know how poetry can quiet an over-busy mind, offer an image or an idea that distracts you from the distractions, reminds you what is worth thinking about, liberates you from the mundane. I can open Stafford to any page and find something wonderful. For example:
They dance before they learn
there is anything that isn’t music.
Stafford has two poems that are frequently anthologized, so if you took a literature class in college you probably listened to the blowhard at the back of the class (e.g., me) “explain” what Stafford meant by his only swerving in a poem about a dead deer, or waited through the painful silence of a class perplexed by a poem’s central question — what is the poem not doing? Those are good poems, but you need to know who Stafford is before you can understand his swerving or why matters. You have to know Stafford, and possibly be a writer, to grasp the full impact of what that poem hasn’t done.
If I had to pick one to anthologize, myself, it would be this one.
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.
What more can I advise young people than that: Don’t ever let go of the thread. It’s too big an idea to be kept in a poetry class. I’m going to start inscribing it in my books.
I used to live pretty close to where Stafford was from, in Western Kansas, and probably visited half the towns he lived in as his family scrabbled about during the Depression. I can visualize his poems about growing up. Just living there was a career, he said. He knew what it was like to have seasons instead of history. He knew what it was like to make hay and be hungry, how it felt to be up at dawn and hold his hands up to the sun. He knew all that, and he never forgot.
If only my father could hold me forever, and the world/stay still—
He is anchored to the soil and his past, with his eyes to the sky and the future. He realizes profound things, but he knows that the truth is soft, that the biggest truths are hard to believe.
[W]ell, Right has a long and intricate name./And the saying of it is a lonely thing.
He is no longer with his, but a happy one hundredth to Mr. Stafford, who thought hard for us all and held on to the thread.