An Alphabet of Poets- S is for Stafford

Why I Am Happy

 Now has come, an easy time. I let it
roll. There is a lake somewhere
so blue and far nobody owns it.
A wind comes by and a willow listens

I hear all this, every summer. I laugh
and cry for every turn of the world,
its terribly cold, innocent spin.
The lake stays blue and free; it goes
on and on.

And I know where it is.

William Stafford (1914-1993) from The Way It Is – New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press 1998.

A master of the so called “American plain style” William Stafford’s poems are the more surprising for the way they hold lasting impact inside seemingly simple wrappers. His poems stay with me: beloved friends that remind me gently to stay awake and pay attention.

Why I Am Happy has become a centering prayer for me. Even in life’s disarray this poem can disrupt my disrupted thoughts and remind me of my own blue lake! Just try saying this in a bad moment – now has come an easy time. I let it/ roll. There is a blue lake somewhere /so blue and free no one owns it. When I do, I find it hard not to be shocked into, at least, looking for reasons why I could be happy not sad.

Stafford’s genius is the deceptive power of the simple everyday images he uses, almost common as cliche, yet in the overall context of his poems he imbues them with a universal meaning that keeps them fresh, unexpected.

Stafford’s blue lake long since has ceased to be attached to any blue lake I remember but has become something far bigger and everlasting! And his craft is hard to see – like in the finest cabinetry! I am astounded still by the end of Why I Am Happy: The lake stays blue and free. It goes on and on and I know where it is.

Look at the power of that word – and – the way he uses it! If he broke that last sentence with a period after it goes on and on it would lose so much impact! It goes on and on AND he knows where it is!

And Stafford reminds me of my own Blue Lake, reminds me it goes on and on and that I know where it is! That eternal place inside me. I forget I have it inside me sometimes until he reminds me why I am happy, especially when I think I’m not.

Stafford was shockingly prolific. Even though his first book of poems wasn’t published until he was 46 he wrote 67 books including almost 60 books of poetry in the next 33 years!. These books included 3,000 poems – a large number on their own but just a fraction of the some 22,000 he wrote. He was much celebrated. One of his early books won the  National Book Award and in 1970 he was apoointed to a position that today is designated as the American Poet Laureate.

He is celebrated for writing a poem/poems every morning. I don’t know when that started but it must have been early on! And imagine this! He didn’t stop his discipline of at least a poem a day until the day he died, August 28th, 1993! And he wrote a poem that day before he died! When you read the following poem you might wonder at what time in his life he wrote it. Can you guess?

You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around.

from The Way It Is

While you wonder about the date this poem was written here is another that Robert Bly, the American poet and great supporter of Stafford, admires greatly.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

from The Way It Is

Yes, this poem has a lot of telling in it! But the images here are so important, beautifully crafted, especially those elephants! For me, in this poem the narrator earns the right to say what he says. This is the hallmark of a good poem especially one not just relying on images to the work. And here is a fun poem, with lots of lyrical flourishes!

When I Met My Muse

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed

like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

from The Way It Is

I hope these poems tempt you to explore Stafford’s work. The Way It Is is a good place to start. Stafford died on August 28th, 1993. He wrote You Reading This Be Ready two days before, on the 26th.  As I ask participants in my workshops when I recite this poem, can you imagine being that alive, that determined to be in the now when you are in your late 80’s and so close to death! I can only wish I might be that awake! And if I am some credit will go to Stafford who reminds me: the darkness around us is deep.

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