Wanderings: William Stafford

If reading Ted Hughes’ Crow last week was like walking a mile along a gravel road carrying a bag of snakes, picking up William Stafford’s Even in Quiet Places felt like a gentle hike through an old growth forest.

staffordI’ve loved Stafford’s poems for as long as I can remember. He is one of the writers I return to most, and frankly one I most looked forward to spending some time with this year as I bent my attention to the joys of verse. Stafford is a giant in Oregon literature and a poet of national renown. One of the most vivid celebrity moments of my silly life came in meeting him in passing (what seems like a hundred years ago). Yeah, I’m dorky. A parcel of his books populate my shelf, and for this year of poetry I pulled down Even in Quiet Places, an omnibus drawn from four sources, a delightful reminder of some of what makes Stafford such a treasure.

The poems in this collection are as diverse as one might imagine, and in them it’s easy to see how the poet’s reminiscences on childhood inform his more philosophical sensibilities, and how those ways of looking at the world help to shape the poems in the final section, a series designed to be displayed along trails on public lands.

In “A Farewell, Age Ten” Stafford remembers childhood and a vivid incident of leaving it.

While its owner looks away I touch the rabbit.
Its long soft ears fold back under my hand.
Miles of yellow wheat bend; their leaves
rustle away and wait for the sun and wind.
This day belongs to my uncle. This is his farm.
We have stopped on our journey; when my father says to
we will go on, leaving this paradise, leaving
the family place. We have my father’s job.
Like him, I will be strong all of my life.
We are men. If we squint our eyes in the sun
we will see far. I’m ready. It’s good, this resolve.
But I will never pet the rabbit again.”

Nostalgic, heartbruising, and universal, even for those of us without literal rabbit moments of our own, Stafford’s juxtaposition of manly, Clint Eastwood style squinting and the softness of a rabbit’s ears has the potential to transport many of us to our own fifth grade selves, the innocence of youth and the leaving it.

Stafford, a story teller, knows the details to include and the space to leave for us to fill in ourselves. His “miles of yellow wheat” may conjure specific images for those of us who share the poet’s geography, but even for a reader in a place without farms like his uncle’s I’d wager Stafford provides enough of the universal experience of youth to connect.

Those connections continue as Stafford waxes philosophical in poems like “With Apologies All Around,” a poem that I’ll hold back from suggesting is representative of all readers; perhaps it’s just me who has, in moments of feeling overwhelmed, found even emotions like outrage or despair difficult to connect with. That fumbling feeling of not enough is something Stafford captures when he writes:

Now it seems that I am not sad enough. Some
terrible thing has happened and I only
shift my eyes to the moon coming up
or how the water catches the light.

And besides, my eyes keep following
a sentence that someone is saying. My head
accepts and it nods and hurries to say,
“And another thing….”

Meanwhile that big sadness hangs on
back there. What business do I have
with my easy agreeableness: “You’re right,”
“Sure enough, it’s that way,” “Please tell me more.”

So I’ll try to be sad. For all my wanderings,
my thoughtless delights, I’m sorry.”

People more comfortable with their emotions have not, I am sure, struggled as Stafford suggests, but for flawed fellows like me “With Apologies All Around” feels reassuring. I’m not alone in not always having the answers I need. Wanderings, thoughtless delights, shifting my eyes to the moon, or being distracted by the beauty of water, I belong to a greater collection of dreamers who don’t always resonate at the right frequency …though recognizing my limits, I promise to try.

Stafford, particularly Stafford read on a beautiful late autumn day in Oregon, brings with him a sense of the natural world. Seasons change in Stafford’s poetry, trees sway, it rains. 

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And on my drive to work in the morning, as I walk around the lake in my neighborhood in the afternoon, I see and am inspired to feel the landscape Stafford describes in poems like “Where We Are.”

Fog in the morning here
will make some of the world far away
and the near only a hint. But rain
will feel its blind progress along the valley,
tapping to convert one boulder at a time
into a glistening fact. Daylight will love what came.
Whatever fits will be welcome, whatever
steps back in the fog will disappear
and hardly exist. You hear the river
saying a prayer for all that’s gone.

Far over the valley there is an island
for everything left; and our own island
will drift there too, unless we hold on,
unless we tap like this: “Friend,
are you there? Will you touch when
you pass, like the rain?””

I can recommend no poet more than William Stafford, particularly as fall turns into winter, days shorten, and weather reminds us to slow down.


Continuing this year of poetry next week with Alice Walker’s Horses Make A Landscape Look More Beautiful.


Willingly Fallible

I’m going to make some mistakes. That freaks me out a little. Knowing the importance of working in education, I want so very much to get things right. I’m a principal, the guy in the tie, who ought to have the answers, and as tough as it is I know I’ll only be able to do my best if I’m able to be humble enough to ask questions.

Along with those questions, so many as I learn the culture of a school new to me and the policies of a new district, is the need to see myself as a learner, own my status as a steward to a great school, and embrace the opportunity to serve others with optimism and hard work.

And if I bring my best self to my work, then those mistakes, natural parts of being human, won’t be what defines me, though having the confidence to take chances that may lead to some of those mistakes certainly will.

FullSizeRenderWhen I have doubts about such things, or worries about not having the answer, I do my best to slow down and remember what poet William Stafford wrote about his craft in An Oregon Message“I must be willingly fallible in order to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.”

How true for life as that is for poetry.

Mistakes? I’ll learn from them.

Questions? I’ll ask.

Is the principal fallible? Willingly.

Odd Things

JacketMy most memorable brush with a celebrity came on a rainy night in Oregon when I bumped up against William Stafford near a table of crackers and cheese at a function in Portland. He was in his 70s by then; I still had the glow of an undergraduate English degree about me. Stafford had already been Poet Laureate, published thousands of poems, and was known in colleges everywhere for powerful poems like “Traveling through the Dark.” We exchanged pleasantries, I probably said something stupid about admiring his work, and as we parted he cupped my elbow with a wrinkled hand and said: “Be careful driving home.”

I came upon a poem by Stafford this week, one I didn’t remember, called “What’s in My Journal.” The title serves as context for the series of words that follow, a list of miscellany as purposefully chosen as a duelist’s sword.

Reading that poem got me thinking about memory and middle life, and the list of my own. As an educator, it also prompted me to consider my role, and the role of teachers and schools, in the filling of our students’ proverbial journals.

Stafford describes his own as he writes:

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can’t find them. Someone’s terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.”

Our students fill that “space for knickknacks, and for Alaska” day by day, week by week, and year by year, largely within the school community they call home. The treasures they collect are their own, both “fishhooks” and “marbles too,” but the importance of the adults around them, and the atmosphere those adults help to create, can’t and shouldn’t be undervalued.

Teachers matter more than most. There is no more powerful incubator for experience than a classroom, and the time students share with peers and teachers helps to shape perspective on the world. Every student can describe the teacher who mattered most to them, and many, decades after they’ve thrown their mortarboards in the air, can trace a change in their life’s trajectory to a single moment in a specific classroom somewhere along the way.

And so we should ask ourselves how we are promoting marbles over fishhooks. We should consider how we might best strive to demonstrate a “genius for being agreeable,” even as we challenge students to challenge themselves.

As we work together to develop and nurture a purposeful school community, it helps me to pause long enough to read a few lines of poetry and reflect, to use Stafford’s analogy, on what’s in my journal, and maybe how I can help point out a clue or two to my students as they fill their own pages day after day, week after week, and year after year.