Downstream they have killed the river—built a dam;
by that power they write to here a light:
a turbine strides high poles to spit this flame
at this flume going down. A spot glows white
where an old man looks at the ghosts of the game—
flickering twilight deep dumb shapes that glide.
So many Chinook souls. So many Silverside.
– William Stafford,
‘The Fish-Counter at Bonneville’
If one grows up in Oregon, one hears a lot about William Stafford. Always being the sort of person to avoid what other people are talking about (with no regard for its merit or interest), I never read any of his work until just a few months ago – and I expected to sneer even then. I am fond of sneering; it is not a nice thing about me. I don’t mean anything by it, really, except liking to sneer, but people do seem to take it the wrong way and it would be better if I stopped. Where was I? Right. Preparing to sneer at William Stafford – a provincial poet; a regional poet – and if there’s anything I like worse than a poet, it’s a regional poet.1 This is not a very good start, especially when I was planning to read a new (to me) collection of poetry every month and write about it – this is a very bad start indeed.
Anyway. I happened to read ‘A Way of Writing’ because it was part of a thing I was working on/for and it seemed like a good idea to be familiar with it. My expectations were low – but the humility and sensibleness of the essay left me (slightly) chastened and I set my sneering aside (for the moment). I even went to far as to attend the launch party for Winterward, published by the local press Tavern Books last December. Here’s the proof:
Kim Stafford at the launch for Winterward
Good heavens, it appears I left the house for once and attended a cultural event.
Lest you worry too much, I did sit in the back and concentrate on taking pictures,
punctuating the respectful dimness with the loud ka-chunk of the shutter.
Of course since I attended the launch, an eminently respectable affair in a downtown chapel, I thought I might as well pick up a copy; once I had a copy of the book, I figured I might as well read it, so here we are. If you’re not familiar with Winterward, it’s William Stafford’s doctoral dissertation from the University of Iowa and this edition is the first time that these poems have been published as a collection with Stafford’s introduction.2 This is all fine and good, but what I like about the book, what I liked about the launch event, was the atmosphere of the thing: the way that the presenters burnt incense (as it were) on the altar for the poet, for his character, and for poetry in general – and the way that this resonated with the uneasy deism of the collection. 3 It is quite a religious set of poems, concerned with God and souls and how one balances against authority, as in the following poem, ‘Fieldpath’:
I helped make this groove,
and other helpless monuments I have
carved—turning them over this evening,
I see no way to escape immortality:
my shadow with its Christian name
has worn out through this grass so long.
One could say that this poem, too, is a track in the grass – an eminently perishable, transitory path that might yet be more durable than grass and cram more than eternity into an hour. The body is the shadow-self, and the real self – not bumbling along, yet still curiously powerless to contend with shadows – is what? the soul? the mind? Whichever it is, it is at odds with its labels, its Christian name. I don’t want to wrestle more with this poem; perhaps because it could win, but in any case because I would certainly lose, have certainly lost – I must acknowledge that it was interesting to read the collection, and it was interesting to be surprised by it. Perhaps, slowly, I shall learn to achieve a greater share of receptivity, as Stafford counsels:4
Maybe I have to settle for an immediate impression: it’s cold, or hot, or dark, or bright, or in between! Or well, the possibilities are endless. If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come, and I’m off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started. These things, odd or trivial as they may be, are somehow connected. And if I let them string out, surprising things will happen.
- Heaven defend you if you’re a national poet. Ahem. This is another of those things I say and don’t mean. Don’t know why I say them, but there it is – I really don’t have strong feelings about poets one way or the other but one must get up some kind of pose on the subject and I side with prose.
- Most of the poems in the collection have been published elsewhere, and will be quite familiar to readers of Stafford’s work.
- This was not at all what I expected: nature poems – yes; god poems – no.
- It has taken a great effort not to deflate this attempt to write about poetry with sneering at this point – especially by puncturing the notion that I am interested in the exercise at all. Well, I suppose I have managed to be very nearly sincere. Or I hope so, anyhow. The final quote is from ‘A Way of Writing’ in case you hadn’t guessed that.