Audio

The Seeker

December 24, 2014

There's a thread you follow it goes among things that change-

... it goes among things that change but it doesn't change. People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread.

... you have to explain about the thread, but it is hard for others to see. While you hold it you can't get lost. Tragedies happen. People get hurt or die. And you suffer or get old.

And you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.

You never let go of the thread.

 

Curtis Fox: That was "The Way It Is," by William Stafford. And this is Poetry Off the Shelf," from the Poetry Foundation. William Stafford was born 100 years ago in 1914, the year that World War I began. What was the thread William Stafford followed in his life?

 

Kim Stafford: He called himself "a seeker.”

 

Curtis Fox: Kim Stafford is a poet and the son of William Stafford.

 

Kim Stafford: And I think the thread for him was that always reaching for the next thing, in a conversation, in writing.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: I knew that he was the poet for me.

 

Curtis Fox: Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet for whom William Stafford was a mentor.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: I had never before read anyone whose work seemed so particularly and acutely right on, well tuned, exactly what I wanted poetry to do.

 

Philip Metres: I think in terms of his contributions to extending or experimenting the art, he doesn't rank very high.

 

Curtis Fox: Philip Metres is a poet and a critic who has written about William Stafford.

 

Philip Metres: But in terms of art as a practice, a social conscience, art as a way of living, to me he's very important.

 

Curtis Fox: Today on the program, Philip Metres, Naomi Shihab Nye and Kim Stafford are going to listen to and comment on a few classic William Stafford poems, and talk a bit about them man himself. At least two things about William Stafford are useful to know when you read his poetry. Here's the first.

 

Philip Metres: He was a West Coast poet with a lifelong healthy nostalgia for the Midwest.

 

Curtis Fox: Stafford was born and raised in a small town in Kansas. Kansas comes up a lot in his poetry. But he spent almost all his adult life in the Far West, in California and Oregon. I ask Kim Stafford if his father saw himself as a Midwestern or a Western poet.

 

Kim Stafford: Certainly west of the East. Yeah, he thought of himself as a Westerner. But he also said that people in New York are rather provincial.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: I feel that that Midwestern horizon was always in him.

 

Curtis Fox: That's Naomi Shihab Nye again, a fellow Midwesterner.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: I think he felt very close to sort of the center of the country all his life and the rural people and the quieter places that get less fanfare. I think that was very strongly in him.

 

Curtis Fox: And in his poetry, which has often been called plain-spoken, conversational. Studs Terkel went into this with Stafford in 1989.

 

Studs Terkel: I'm thinking about you and the poems you write. They're highly always direct, deceptively simple, but oh, boy. The punch there.

 

William Stafford: Of course, they might be authentically simple, you know, not deceptive, actually simple. Just direct.

 

Curtis Fox: Maybe, for some Stafford poems, that's probably true. But a lot of his poems just seems simple.

 

Philip Metres: There's something both quaint and cunning about his use of language.

 

Curtis Fox: That's, again, Philip Metres.

 

Philip Metres: Oftentimes, the poems feel very much like plain speech. But on the other hand, there's always something that's slightly off about them. For instance, there's something a little off at the beginning of Stafford's celebrated poem, "A Ritual to Read to Each Other." Here's the first stanza from Studs Terkel's show on WFMT.

 

William Stafford: 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. In following the wrong god home, we may miss our star.

 

Kim Stafford: "In following the wrong god home, we may miss our star." Obviously the cliché is, following the wrong star home, we may miss our god. You know, it's a reference to the wise men, finding Jesus in the manger. And so he kind of cracks that open and sort of makes it cosmic.

 

Curtis Fox: Kim Stafford also notes the subtlety buried in the plain-spoken language at the beginning of that poem.

 

Kim Stafford: "If you don't know the kind of person I am, and I don't know the kind of person you are …" You know, when I first read this poem, I've had it wrong at the beginning. If I don't know the kind of person I am, well, no, that's not what he says. He starts with the assumption, "I know the kind of person I am."

 

Curtis Fox: I said there were two things that would be helpful to know about William Stafford. Here's the second. This is a very naïve question, but why was your father a conscientious objector during World War II?

 

Kim Stafford: His account of his pacifism was, everyone around him was a pacifist, after World War I. It was so horrific, that his teachers, the fathers of his friends, were all pacifists. And he felt the rest of the world changed overnight with Pearl Harbor. And he felt that his worldview was his native kind of religion.

 

Curtis Fox: In 1942, Stafford was drafted. He registered as a conscientious objector and spent the next four years in a civilian public service camp.

 

Kim Stafford: There were about 200 guys in this camp and they were doing manual labor. They were planting trees, fighting forest fires, building roads and so on. And the whole camp decided, "We will be a school. We will all get up at three or four in the morning, and we'll teach each other. World economy, theater, music, poetry. And then at eight o'clock, we'll trudge off to our day shift."

 

Curtis Fox: While other American men of his generation went off to fight the bloodiest war in the history of the world,

 

Kim Stafford: He was with a group of seekers, who were planning for when the lights come back on. Planning for a peaceful world. And I think he never stopped feeling he was part of a select company of people working for the good.

 

Curtis Fox: Now let's go back to the poem, "A Ritual to Read to Each Other."

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: I do know it was one of Dorothy's, his wife's, favorites of his poems.

 

Philip Metres: In some ways, I think it's a primal Stafford poem.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: Yeah.

 

Philip Metres: "A Ritual to Read to Each Other" has become a kind of anthem in our culture.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: I imagined that she liked it because she was hearing it as the two of them reading to one another, which is something I think they did a lot.

 

Kim Stafford: You know, you're a pacifist following a popular war. You are suspect to many you meet, and yet you're a seeker for connections with everyone, "the unknown good in our enemies," as my father would say. And so this ritual to read to each other, this is kind of a reminder of our need to be truly with one another as we face difficulties in life.

 

William Stafford:

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 dike.

 

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.

 

Philip Metres:  I love the ending of this poem. Of course, it's sort of didactic in its own way. But everyone wants to be awake, you know? So he sort of summons and gathers our best selves,

and I think that that's one of the invitations of a Stafford poem.

 

Studs Terkel: I was thinking, Bill Stafford, that poem. "If you don't know the kind of person I am, and I don't know the kind of person you are," we're gonna be had by a third person.

 

William Stafford: Yeah. And I hope we can use this as a guide, Terkel, as we go back and forth.

 

Studs Terkel: Yes.

 

William Stafford: I know the kind of person you are.

 

Studs Terkel: Yeah, okay.

 

William Stafford: Then the poem goes on, "For there is many a small betrayal in the mind." Not being honest with yourself is the tip of the wedge that opens into great trouble farther. "Where there's many a small betrayal in the mind, a shrug ..."

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: "A shrug that lets the fragile sequence break, sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood, storming out to play, through the broken dike."

 

Kim Stafford: Childhood was extremely important for my father. He could remember the names of everyone in his first-grade class, second-grade class.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: Well, who breaks the dike? Is the dike our idealism that's broken as we get older and it's the small betrayals we're going to make now, as adults, that will really flood us somehow? I'm not sure.

 

William Stafford: I call it cruel, and maybe the root of all cruelty, to know what occurs, but not recognize the fact.

 

Philip Metres: The root of all cruelty isn't some extravagant terrorist gesture. It's a betrayal in the mind. It's a dishonest word.

 

William Stafford: And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: Wow, I feel like he's talking about everything that's going on in the world right now, what's happening now.

 

Philip Metres: He says, "And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy." What is that voice?

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: Yes.

 

Philip Metres: What is that voice, do you think?

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: I think Stafford might have felt it's the best voice inside of each one of us. But also I think he might have believed in the voice that's sort of under the surface of all the silence. I think he was always listening for that voice, that kind of tuning.

 

Philip Metres: A voice, something shadowy ... I feel that's our common opportunity as human beings, that language is the fundamental alternative to violence.

 

William Stafford: "The signals we give, yes, or no, or maybe, should be clear. The darkness around us is deep."

 

Kim Stafford: "The Star in the Hills," is a poem he wrote on one of the many stops of my childhood. You know, we moved every year until I was eight years old. We lived in San Jose in 1956 and '57. And my father, at that point, had four children, so he had to have a job and teaching at San Jose State, as it was then, required you to sign a loyalty oath that you would defend the state of California, and so on. This is a kind of a crisis for a pacifist. Are you gonna sign the loyalty oath or are you gonna stand on your principles? Well, typically, my father signed the oath and then wrote the poem that questioned the oath.

 

William Stafford: One of my classes was over in the science building and inside of the hall, as I went down, there was a little map of this area, and it had an "X" and it said, "Site of Meteorite." It was up there by Alum Rock Park and we lived in that direction. So I got on my bicycle and went up looking for it. This poem is a result of it, called "The Star in the Hills."

 

A star hit in the hills behind our house

up where the grass turns brown touching the sky.

 

Meteors have hit the world before, but this was near,

and since TV; few saw, but many felt the shock.

The state of California owns that land

(and out from shore three miles), and any stars

that come will be roped off and viewed on week days 8 to 5.

 

A guard who took the oath of layalty and denied

any police record told me this:

"If you don't have a police record yet

you could take the oath and get a job

if California should be hit by another star."

 

"I'd promise to be loyal to California

and to guard any stars that hit it," I said,

"or any place three miles out from shore,

unless the star was bigger than the state--

in which case I'd be loyal to it."

 

But he said no exceptions were allowed,

and he leaned against the state-owned meteor

so calm and puffed a cork-tip cigarette

that I looked down and traced with my foot in the dust

and thought again and said, "OK--any star.”

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: He often talks about these distances, these horizons, expanses. And I feel like the beginning of this poem does that.

 

William Stafford: A star hit in the hills behind our house, up where the grass turns brown, touching the sky.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: We're looking off there, beyond where we're living. So he's often invoking that horizon as something that is near us and that we need to pay attention to, because important things are happening there.

 

William Stafford: Meteors have hit the world before. But this was near, and since TV."

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: He had a wry quality. There was never a bitter tone to his humor.

 

William Stafford: A guard who took the oath of loyalty and denied any police record told me this, 'If you don't have a police record yet, you could take the oath and get a job if California should be hit by another star.'

 

Philip Metres: I just see him having so much fun here. The guard is suspect. He has denied any police record and saying, "If you don't have a police record ..." So we're all on probation. We're all potential criminals. And yet if we act forthright, and stand up straight and look straight ahead, no one will know. It's a kind of idea that the official version, the part that relies on an oath of loyalty, is sort of papering over our true nature.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: But I think in this poem, he's also approaching an interesting way, issues about what we honor and what we guard, and how we choose to guard things.

 

William Stafford: So then the speaker says, "Well, I promised to be loyal to California and to guard any stars that hit it, " I said. "Or any place three miles out from shore, unless the star was bigger than the state, in which case I'd be loyal to it." But he said no exceptions were allowed. "And he leaned against that state-owned meteor, so calm, and puffed a cork-tipped cigarette. Then I looked down and traced with my foot in the dust and thought again and said, 'Okay. Any star.'"

 

Philip Metres: Of course, the joke of that last line is, "If California's hit by a star that's bigger than the state, I won't need to argue my point."

 

Kim Stafford: There's something very wry about the poem, a little bit devilish, not super devilish but just enough to get himself into trouble, I think.

 

Philip Metres: Not to make too much of this, but I think he's saying, "You know, the work of peace is bigger than any act of war. Human connection is bigger than that, older than that, reaches farther forward than that. And so we can banter about words and oath and records and documents and so on, but there's something much bigger going on and I have a sense of humor about all that."

 

Curtis Fox: Stafford was a poet but he made his living as a teacher and teaching was central to his life. He settled in as a professor for several decades at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. He also traveled quite a bit to give readings and writers' workshops.

 

Kim Stafford: My father, for eight years, would drive 60 miles west from Portland to teach a night class with working people on the Oregon coast in the communities of Tillamook and Seaside, where there were extension classes, you know, working men and women who wanted to read, wanted to write, wanted to think. My father had great loyalty to those students. Late one night, in the early 1960's, Stafford drove home from the coast on the narrow mountain roads. And in the morning, we kids were all sitting at the table and he began to tell, "Hey, kids, something very unusual happened on the road last night." He said that as he was telling this story, he saw our eyes widen, and he realized, "Maybe I better write about that."

 

William Stafford: "Traveling Through the Dark," should I read it all? Sixty-one. We're really tractoring along now. This is … This is the real business.

 

Curtis Fox: "Traveling Through the Dark," is your father's most famous poem. You think it's probably over-exposed. Can you over-expose a poem this good?

 

Kim Stafford: Probably not. As long as we get in there and wonder along with the speaker, what is happening, then it stays alive.

 

Phillip Metres: You know, on the one hand, it's just a really interesting poem of ethical dilemma.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: How we'll all be called upon to make a difficult decision, and to do something that no one else sees, but at that moment, it's a life-and-death moment. And we have to decide what to do.

 

Kim Stafford: Someone told me it was used at Annapolis to train military officers' difficult decision-making skills. Yeah, how do you make an impossible decision?

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: You know, it's a dramatic poem. It's a little more narrative and dramatic than many Stafford poems. It's a very hovering, haunting intense poem.

 

William Stafford:

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.

 

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car   

and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;   

she had stiffened already, almost cold.

I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

 

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—

her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,   

alive, still, never to be born.

Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

 

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;   

under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;   

around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

 

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,   

then pushed her over the edge into the river.

 

Kim Stafford: You know, when my father took this poem to his writing group, they all agreed, "Bill. You cannot end a poem that way. It's too mean. You've got to change that last line. This is too hard." And my dad decided two things. One is, he's not changing the poem, and, "I'm done with this group."

 

Philip Metres: I think what's so kind of great about the poem is it just sits us right in that problem of, what do you do if you have to clear a road of a dead deer, and then realize in fact that the dead deer has an unborn baby deer inside of it?

 

William Stafford: "Her side was warm. Her fawn lay there waiting, alive, still."

 

Philip Metres: I would just stop and ... That word, "still." It's both still in the sense of inert, motionless. But "still" in the sense of, "I'm still here." It's going on, it's ongoing. So it's really kind of a mystical apprehension of some thing that is very still and maybe defeated and yet, eternal and vivid.

 

William Stafford: Beside that mountain road, I hesitated.

 

Philip Metres: You have to kill something in order to prevent further death.

 

Curtis Fox: Phillip Metres relates this dilemma in the poem to the classic ethical problem for pacifists. What would you do if you're called upon the fight a truly evil enemy?

 

Philip Metres: I'm not saying this is a poem about World War II, by any means. But it's a poem that asks the question that World War II asked of conscientious objectors like Stafford.

 

William Stafford: The car aimed ahead, its lowered parking lights. Under the hood purred the steady engine.

 

Philip Metres: The car seems more like a creature than the creatures, including himself, you know?

 

William Stafford: I stood in the glare, the warm exhaust turning red.

 

Philip Metres: The exhaust is turning red because of the lights but it's also he is turning red, you know there's this sense of embarrassment and shame about what he's about to do.

 

William Stafford: Around our group, I could hear the wilderness listened.

 

Philip Metres: You know, that's a very wonderful turnabout of what we usually would say. "I heard the wilderness." I mean even that would be an extravagant thing to say. But "I could hear

the wilderness listen." You know, he's being called to account by the universe here.

 

William Stafford: I thought hard for us all.

 

Naomi Shihab Nye: And that's the great line, to me, of this poem. "I thought hard for us all."

 

Philip Metres: He is the witness. He is the one who has to decide. And I think this moment is, "My whole country has gone to war. And I'm the one who's called to figure out what is right. What can I do? Can I do the impossible? Can I save everyone, can I stop the machine?

 

William Stafford: "I thought hard for us all, my only swerving and pushed her over the edge into the river."

 

Kim Stafford: The last time I saw my father ... I tell this story in early morning. He told me a story that made him cry. I'd never seen him cry. It was a very simple story in a way about when he was in high school and they were reading at home in the evening and they heard a thump outside, and they went out on the porch and their dog, Buster, had been hit by a car and was dragging himself toward the porch. And at this point in the story, my father said, "I looked around to see who would do something and I realized it was me.” And I think, in that moment of being alone, having to witness, having to say the way it is, having to take a stand, incredibly lonely and yet impossible to avoid. And I think that's at the very core of his crisis as a writer, really. He had humor. He had some skill. He had a lot of friendly poems but at heart, it was an existential bargain for him to try to say the way it is.

 

Curtis Fox: You can read the poems on this podcast in the book Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, by William Stafford. You can also find a lot of his poems on our website, poetryfoundation.org. We heard from Kim Stafford, Naomi Shihab Nye and Phillip Metres. Thanks to all of them, as well as to Zack Selley, the assistant archivist at Lewis and Clark College for providing the audio of William Stafford.  We did something a bit different on the podcast this week, so let us know what you thought about it. Email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org. If you liked it, please share a link to it on social media. The music in this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off the Shelf, I'm Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

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