The Little Ways That Encourage Good Fortune
by William Stafford
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.
If the byline weren’t “William Stafford,” if these 14 lines (a sonnet’s length) weren’t arranged with line breaks and stanzas, and if “The Little Ways That Encourage Good Fortune” didn’t originally appear a in a poetry collection called The Way It Is, I’d swear this isn’t a poem at all. It sounds more like something my dad used to say when he was telling us kids to get our priorities straight. Or what my friend Casey’s mom said every time one of her kids left the house: Remember who you are and what you represent.
With its “if you don’t do this, then this bad thing happens” construction, “The Little Ways” reads like an instructional guide for a good life, almost like a Goofus and Gallant comic strip for adults. Stafford uses no imagery, no elevated language, no rhyme, no obvious meter. Line breaks and repetition form the whole of the poetic techniques he employs.
The poem begins with a definition (Wisdom is having things right in your life and knowing why) but leaves the terms undefined. Stafford doesn’t say exactly what it means to have things right in your life or how you know that they are, much less how they got to be that way.
The next few lines provide a clue, by way of a negative example. If you don’t have things right in your life, Stafford says, you’ll be overwhelmed. Said another way, if you are overwhelmed (which means you are not wise), things must be wrong in your life.
By that logic we are surely all fools.
Then we get to tautology territory, to wit: If wisdom means having things right in your life, not having things right in your life means you aren’t wise.
By the end of the first stanza more questions pop up. What’s the difference between having good luck and having good fortune? What is good fortune anyway?
Yet for all the palaver you’ve just read or skimmed over about the slippery nature of meaning in this poem, the truth is, it’s not slippery at all. I‘m just overthinking it. As sure as I am that even in the absence of all the foofaraw of poetry this is a poem, I am equally sure of the truth of Stafford’s pronouncements without him giving clear definitions of his terms. Casey’s mom never needed to spell out exactly what it meant to represent their large family. The kids just knew. Stafford’s poem has a surety, a confidence, an authority that speaks to a common understanding. The word “right” is repeated 6 times, clanging through the poem like a town clock on the hour. You can’t ignore it, and you know what it means.
The one idea I can logically infer from Stafford’s how-to guide comes from the title. The Little Ways That Encourage Good Fortune. True good fortune doesn’t arrive with a big boom and a flash, like winning the lottery. Good fortune is a way, not an event; it’s a path made up of little things we do or don’t do. The phrase calls up religious traditions like the Little Way of St. Therese of Lisieux and the Middle Way of the Buddha.
Last night when I was trying to fall asleep I started an inventory of all the wise people and saddest people I could think of. The dozen or so wise people I came up with share one stellar quality—humility. The much longer list of saddest people is heavily populated with folks from the wellness, religious and political communities. Marianne Williamson, recently in the news for anger issues, was the first to come to mind.
I left the poem along a bike path two months ago. Last time I checked, it was folded in and windblown but still holding steady to the signpost.
From a previous post:
William Stafford (1914-1993) was born in Kansas, the oldest of three. He earned his BA from University of Kansas. As a conscientious objector during WWII, he performed alternative service on the home front, working in sugar beet fields and oil refineries, and building roads and fighting fires. At one of these work camps he met his future wife, Dorothy Franz, whom he married in 1944 and with whom he had four children.
Stafford got his PhD from University of Iowa in 1954 and taught for most of his career at Lewis and Clark in Oregon.
His publishing history inspires a late bloomer like me. He was 46 when his first book of poetry saw print and went on to publish over fifty-seven volumes of poetry, and to earn, among many awards, Guggenheim and NEA fellowships.
Stafford’s oldest son Bret committed suicide in 1988 age 40. Stafford wrote about his son’s death but could never talk about with his family. Still, the Staffords seemed to have been close. To get a sense of his home life, link to an interview here with his wife Dorothy and two of his children. I love the anecdote his wife tells about their later years:
He would often say, “Do you hurt anywhere, Dorothy?” I’d say, “No.” And he’d say, “Well then let’s celebrate.”
He had a lifelong habit of rising early every morning to write, reclining on a couch. On the day of his death, at age 79, he wrote a poem “Are You Mr. William Stafford?” which includes these lines:
“You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.