Notes On William Stafford

Now, more than ever, I’ve come to trust ideas that are unexpected.  That’s one reason I like to get up early, when the mind of fixed ideas is still half-asleep.  It’s a good time to sit in the meditation room.  Or work on a chapter that’s giving me trouble.  Or simply take a cup of coffee out to the back porch and watch.

I had something in mind to write about for today.  Over coffee on the back porch I came up with topic two.  I gave them both up a moment ago when I went to look up something by William Stafford.

William Stafford, 1914-1993

Yesterday afternoon, I pruned a branch from the apple tree that would have broken under the weight of even one apple.  I carried the branch and its blossom inside and put it in a little vase of the greenish kind of glass you see on old telephone insulators.  How startling it was!  How unexpected that something so simple should resonate so deeply in its silence.  One day the Buddha was scheduled to give a sermon, and all he did was hold up a flower.  That is like the experience of William Stafford’s poetry.

This is the poem I went to look up, one I have read again and again.  Stafford wrote it on August 2, 1993, three weeks before he died:

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder 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 born in Kansas, started publishing late in life, taught Creative Writing at Lewis and Clark College, and was named Poet Laureate of Oregon in 1975.  I feel like skipping over the biographical details in favor of letting Stafford’s poetry speak for itself, but thanks to Google I did come up with one gem, an excerpt from a 1990 interview where Stafford talks of the connection between poetry and listening

The image in the interview – Stafford and his father listening to coyotes on the banks of the Arkansas bring to mind this poem:

A Story That Could Be True

If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.

He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by-
you wonder at their calm.

They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?” –
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”

There are several other poems by William Stafford that are important to me that I’d like to quote, but I think it will be enought to end with a passage that brings me back to the apple blossom.  This is the last stanza of the poem Stafford wrote on the morning of Aug. 28, 1993, the day he died:

You can’t tell when strange things with meaning
will happen. I’m [still] here writing it down
just the way it was. “You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.

3 thoughts on “Notes On William Stafford

  1. I continue to be schooled by you, and I mean that in a good way. I didn’t know Stafford’s work, but I think I will become a fan. Stunning poetry — so real and tactile. This may seem an odd comparison, but his writing in a way reminds me of Wallace Stegner. Thanks for posting this.


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