A couple of readers have wondered what happened by my posting of so-called School of Quietude poems. Well, here’s another batch, all drawn from The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems, by William Stafford.
This little selection was hard to arrive at because Stafford wrote so many poems, even the weakest of which carry fragments of brilliance. But in the end it’s good to remember that Stafford viewed poems as instances of a process, the ongoing process of writing; he was less interested in the stand-alone “masterpiece” than in the poem contingent upon the practice, the poem as testimony to that practice, that flow of imagination. It’s an attitude he shared, I think, with poets as different from one another as Dylan Thomas, Robert Duncan, and Cid Corman.
The following poems are poems I love and return to often. I’m presenting them in order from closed to open, simply to illustrate that Stafford was capable of writing almost anywhere along that spectrum. I would also point out that the first poem sounds a note of plain philosophical statement such as we find in “Che Fece…Il Gran Rifiuto,” by Constantine Cavafy—a mode that intentionally seeks closure at every step. The final poem I heard Stafford read many years ago, and the effect was almost hallucinatory (I could blame the wine, but that came after the reading)—the result, I think, of it’s ending’s openness.
THE LITTLE WAYS THAT ENCOURAGE GOOD FORTUNE
Wisdom is having things right in your life
and knowing why.
If you do not have things right in your life
you will be overwhelmed:
you may be heroic, but you will not be wise.
If you have things right in your life
but do not know why,
you are just lucky, and you will not move
in the little ways that encourage good fortune.
The saddest are those not right in their lives
who are acting to make things right for others:
they act only from the self—
and that self will never be right:
no luck, no help, no wisdom.
WITH KIT, AGE 7, AT THE BEACH
We would climb the highest dune,
from there to gaze and come down:
the ocean was performing;
we contributed our climb.
Waves leapfrogged and came
straight out of the storm.
What should our gaze mean?
Kit waited for me to decide.
Standing on such a hill,
what would you tell your child?
That was an absolute vista.
Those waves raced far, and cold.
“How far could you swim, Daddy,
in such a storm?”
“As far as was needed,” I said,
and as I talked, I swam.
A shudder goes through the universe, even
long after. Every star, clasping its
meaning as it looks back, races outward
where something quiet and far waits.
Within, too, ever receding into its fractions,
that first brutal sound nestles closer
and closer toward the tiny dot of tomorrow.
And here we are in the middle, holding
it all together, not even shaking.
Hard to believe.
THE LITTLE GIRL BY THE FENCE AT SCHOOL
Grass that was moving found all shades of brown,
moved them along, flowed autumn away
galloping southward where summer had gone.
And that was the morning someone’s heart stopped
and all became still. A girl said, “Forever?”
And the grass: “Yes. Forever.” While the sky—
The sky—the sky—the sky.