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William Stafford

William Stafford

The process of the art

by Keith Taylor

From the April, 2004 issue

A couple of decades ago Gemini, the popular local acoustic duo, set several poems by William Stafford to music. Stafford's poems are quiet and plainspoken and at first glance might not seem to be likely candidates for becoming songs. Luckily, the Slomovits brothers have more acute ears than the rest of us do. Hearing the Stafford poems sung revealed a music in their poetry that might have escaped us otherwise.

After William Stafford died in 1993 at age seventy-nine, his son, Kim, wrote Early Morning: Remembering My Father, a memoir whose title alluded to Stafford's habit of rising early to spend a couple hours alone writing poems. This unrelenting daily practice informed much of Stafford's work. In one of the great traditions of American writing, the process of artistic creation became for Stafford as important as its result.

This does not mean that Stafford didn't write memorable poems. The title poem from the book that won the National Book Award in 1963, Traveling through the Dark, seems to have been included in every anthology of American poetry published since. It is so well known and its memorable quietness so widely (and often poorly) imitated that it has become possible to overlook its enduring power. That poem famously begins:

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

The poet gets out to do this work, but feels the warmth of an unborn fawn in the belly of the doe. For a brief moment, the world seems to focus on the man, the car, and the dead deer in the night. He concludes: "I thought hard for us all — my only swerving — / then pushed her over the edge into the river."

Stafford was a Quaker and a pacifist.
...continued below...

He served in a camp for conscientious objectors during World War II, repairing roads and planting trees. During the 1960s he became one of the first American poets to lend their voices to the antinuclear and antiwar movements. He published "At the Bomb Testing Site" in 1960:
At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense,
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows
The hands gripped hard on the desert.

Gemini perform the songs they have made from Stafford poems, and local poets and audience members read some of the poems, in a program to remember William Stafford at the Ann Arbor District Library on Tuesday, April 27.     (end of article)

[Originally published in April, 2004.]


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