Friday, September 25, 2009
Drawing by Ted Watts
Kansas Poems of William Stafford
In spite of the fact that William Stafford became an Oregon poet long before he died in 1994, I include him in my list of Kansas poets, because that is essentially what he remained, he frequently came to Kanasas to read and visit places he knew and good friends, our Denise Low was one of those good friends, he agreed to let her edit a collection of his Kansas poems to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Woodley Press, in 1990--and, finally, because, after being reprinted twice, that book is still in print.
I will let Denise introduce Stafford just as she did in her introduction over ten years ago, for it still rings true:
The poet William Stafford is easy to like. He holds out his hand to new readers, urging them to "Love the earth like a mole" and to each day nuzzle your way" ("Starting with Little Things"). The poems in this collection--mostly connected to Stafford's Kansas origins--offer a vision of brotherly affection for the earth and its creatures.
Likeable, yes, but these are not naive, primitive paintings. The poems are subtle, dark, Godly and paradoxical at once. Stephan Stepanchev calls them poems of "Existential loneliness and Western space." They are not stereotyped rural landscapes of barns and wind vanes.
Although the Midwest and Kansas place names occur throughout Stafford's books, he is not a regionalist. He has lived in Oregon for most of his career, but he is not a regional Oregon writer, either. His imaginative process goes beyond facile description of place. Stafford himself asserts his aspirations:
I wrote about Kansas, I wrote about Illinois, I wrote about Indiana; wherever I was. And if I moved tomorrow I'd write about where I showed up, no matter where it was. And so my attitude is this: where you live is not crucial, but how you feel about where you live is crucial. . . .
So the Kansas of these and many other Stafford poems is not a geographic locale, but something more profound, something made more complex by human imagination: "I can say without any problem that the language is what I live in when I write."
The familiar scenery in these poems, Liberal, the Cimarron River, the "Midwest home"--are surface traces of deepest human intricacies. More happens than a scan of horizon:
You glance around. The world
has turned into now:
at a bluff on the north bank
forty years ago someone
did not come to meet you
(from "North of Liberal")
Here a geographic space is compounded by variables of time. According to physicist Fred Young, if time is held constant, space goes to infinity, and when space is held constant, time moves to infinity. Stafford works the tension between the two, in order to transcend both: "Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more than space and time can offer. They have the whole unexplored realm of human vision." Continuous cross-references to the past make his writings of Kansas a process that renews memory, place, and bonds to family and friends.
Further, the timeless Kansas plains suggest a mystical dimension. In high school the young poet camped overnight by the Cimarron River and experienced a "dream vision": "No person was anywhere, nothing, just space, the solid earth. . . . That encounter with the size and serenity of the earth and its neighbors in the sky has never left me."
This serenity still informs Stafford's work. Judith Kitchen points out a "fixed vision" throughout his years of writing, a "central, unchanging sensibility." She further notes that "there is often an attempt to duplicate, at least in feeling, that original dream vision." The parallel of sky and horizon-line to a vision of spiritual unity contributes to a verse of magnitudes. Hometown memories, the landscape, family relationships, and animal life are seen in the context of Stafford's larger quest.
Within this created domain, language is reformed. The vocabulary is selective, as noted by Jonathan Holden:
Such words as "deep," "dark," "cold," "God," "home," "near," amd "far" Stafford consciously uses as a symbolic shorthand, as components in that set of interlocking metaphors which defines his vision of the world.
Stafford's intention reveals itself, obliquely, in "many words associated with the Quaker faith" (Kitchen), such as "witness" and "friend." Description is spare, elliptical, and often abstract: it shapes a style as distinctive as a handprint. Syntax, too, is rearranged. The poet inverts phrases and transposes nouns into active verbs ("Under my hat I custom you intricate, Ella"). Cryptic omissions and compressions occur; a mole's paws become, "but spades, but pink and loving: they/break rock, nudge giants aside,/affable plow" ("Starting with Little Things"). It takes mental agility to keep up with this mole--and with the language of Stafford's poems. It takes time to learn a new vocabulary of thought.
Stafford writes guidebooks aout learning a territory well. He illuminates the universality inherent in detailed moments and landscapes. And despite cruelties that border this created land, seen in the poems "Even Now" and "At First National," still it is an ordered world. Every person's story has dignity, and when a stranger approaches on your side of a brick sidewalk, proper etiquette is to smile back and say "hello." After all, he might offer you conversation, like these poems.