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Archive for the ‘William Stafford’ Category

 

A Country Epitaph

by William Stafford

 

I am the man who plunged

through a river to save his dog;

who failed my parents, though;

who forgot my grief, and sang.

 

Outside your light I stand.

I appeal through careless words,

I appeal by this casual stone:

Was there more I could have done?

 

I appeal to human beings:

 

One day at a time I lived;

I saw more than I told;

I never knew if I claimed

too little or too much. I breathed.

 

There was more I could have done.

 

 

“A Country Epitaph” reminds me of another epitaph, the one in Arizona’s Boothill Graveyard we all learned in childhood:

Here lies Lester Moore.

Four slugs from a .44

No Les. No more.

 

 

In a similar vein, the speaker in Stafford’s poem says, This is my life, no less, no more. He’s trying to give an honest accounting of his earthly days, the good, the bad, the indifferent. No false modesty, no excessive remorse, no polishing of a turd.

 

The facts of his life lead to this question:  Was there more I could have done? Yes, of course. The answer is always yes, I dare say, for every human being who has walked the face of the earth.

 

Although the speaker poses his question to the reader, he answers it himself. There was more I could have done. He feels regret but wears it lightly. That’s a feat, in life as it is on the page.

 

The usual epitaph, etched in stone, is a formal composition, each word carefully considered. This one feels informal, extemporaneous. The speaker says as much to those standing over his grave—

 

I appeal through careless words

 

—but the words in the poem are more loaded than careless. Stafford’s sly construction allows more than one meaning to his pronouncements, meanings which are as contradictory as the measure of his life.

 

  • I appeal through careless words…..Appeal does double work here, first in the sense of making an appeal to the reader, the way a plaintiff does to a judge, but also, I want to appeal to you, please like me!

 

  • forgot my grief, and sang…..Was he resilient in being able to move on after a loss? Or heartless, forgetting it too soon?

 

  • I saw more than I told….This line is so opaque, I can’t see through it. In terms of gossip, seeing more than you tell is good. If we’re talking about a man’s emotional availability, not so good. Multiple meanings exist in other fields, in writing, for example. It’s slippery.

 

  • One day at a time, I lived has echoes of the old Alcoholics Anonymous adage, which in turn calls up images of dark times. Even if the A.A. reference is unintentional, the question of living a day at a time can be positive or negative. Living fully in the present is one of the primary virtues in our age of anxiety, but it can also be shortsighted—remember Aesop’s tale of the ant and grasshopper.

 

 

Stafford works both sides of the fence with the form of the poem as well as with the words. In spite of his protest that it’s a casual stone, “A Country Epitaph” is expertly assembled. It reads like everyday speech, haphazard and casual—a difficult thing to do. Formal elements give a stealthy pleasure:  the almost eye rhymes (dog/though, plunged/sang); an actual eye rhyme (stone/done); the accumulating consonance of the last quatrain (lived/told/claimed/breathed), the final D suggesting death and leading to the last word, done.

 

 

I left the poem outside a Hawaiian cemetery on a surrounding wall. Hawaiian cemeteries are colorful places. Most graves, even the very old ones, have some decoration—leis, a vase of bird of paradise, orchids, anthurium, grocery store flowers. Stroll through the randomly arranged tombstones and you’ll find photographs, stuffed animals, handwritten notes, even favorite foods of the deceased, each offering a testament to the reverence and closeness Hawaiians feel towards the dead. Some people pull up lawn chairs and have a picnic. This particular cemetery has a giant Buddha companionably sharing space with an open-armed Jesus across the field. There’s a Mary statue as well.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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My eighth grade year was the Bicentennial year, and to celebrate our class put on a play. Our ever-enthusiastic music teacher Mrs. Enright put together a musical revue of U.S. history. The only part of the play I remember was singing the give-me-your-tired-your-poor portion of Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus.” I can still sing it today, every note and every word. I thought it was beautiful then and I still do, the way the song builds to that grand last line: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” (You can hear it here.)

 

We’ve come a long way from the golden door. These days I’d be singing, “I lift my lamp beside the silver cage.” Or as a host on Fox News put it, “walls made of chain link fences.”

 

I spent the afternoon driving around looking for chain link fences to post a bunch of poems, quotes and song lyrics I hadn’t used from the last go-round with a hot-button immigration issue. Surprising how many facilities use chain link fence and in how many different ways. None of the fences I found, obviously, are as horrifying as the ones in the news.

 

I’ll post my pictures without much comment.

 

On the fence enclosing a high school football stadium I left the poem mentioned above, Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus,” which is the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty.

poem is to the left of “Field is Closed” sign

 

The line “Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss to me” is lovely to sing when you know the melody.

 

On the fence of a dog park I left excerpts from “home” by Warsaw Shire

 

Warsan Shire is a British-Somali poet. You can hear her read the poem in its entirety here.

 

On the fence of an abandoned loading area for a big retail store I left Seamus Heaney’s “Mint.”

IMG_0325

poem is above blue trash

 

“Like the discarded ones we turned against

Because we’d failed them by our disregard.”

IMG_0324

 

On the fence surrounding the tennis courts of a local park I left words from Pope Francis.

poem is in center of picture and fence

 

The Pope delivered these words back in 2013 on the isle of Lampedusa which 166 African immigrants had drowned trying to reach.

 

On the fence surrounding a cemetery I left a portion of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

 

Johnson wrote the song in 1900 in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (Listen here.)

 

On the fence of a school for disabled children I left William Stafford’s “Experiments.”

 

“I whine . . ./ when the wind carries what is out there/ too near the room where my comfort is.”

 

Finally, I left a selection from the gospel of Matthew on the fence surrounding a country club golf course.

poem is between trees on a pole

 

Jesus of Nazareth, the most famous of all asylum seekers.

 

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At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed-or were killed-on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

The matching of poem to location lacks subtlety, I know:  an anti-war poem within strolling distance of the new WWII monument, the more modest D.C. War memorial, the spooky Korean War Veterans memorial and of course the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  But I couldn’t resist.  Down the hill from the Washington Monument heading towards the Lincoln Memorial was a stumpy mini-obelisk perfect to quickly affix a poem, take a picture and not draw attention.  My initial thought was to mark a spot for poet William Stafford to commemorate the opposite of all these monuments to war.

Stafford was a conscientious objector in WWII, a registered pacifist.  (Which strikes me as funny—what forms do you fill out to register a character trait?  Other than registered sex offenders, are there other types officially labeled and licensed?  How about a registered nut factory?  Or–I’m sorry I can’t volunteer at school today because I’m a registered crankpot.)

While I do really like this poem and honor its peace-loving intentions, I have two thoughts that I didn’t have before I put the poem where I did. How do I know, how did Stafford know, that in the whole history of life–human, animal and insect–no one actually did kill on this spot? Yeats seems more correct that “under every dancer/a dead man in his grave.”  Obviously there’s a difference between being dead and being killed.   But the food chain alone guarantees killing.

My second thought is that this pacifist poem looks out on monuments to two wars which were truly necessary to end an evil.   Without WWII, Hitler would have carried out his Final Solution; and without the Civil War, slavery might have continued a few more decades.  (I’m not a historian but I play one on TV.)

At the Lincoln Memorial, which I visited after posting this poem, I was particularly moved by the words of the Gettysburg address, imprinted on the wall to Lincoln’s right:  “We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this.  But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Many times I’ve read those words before but they meant something to me for the first time the day I posted William Stafford’s poem nearby. And that’s the value of keeping opposing positions in shoulder-rubbing distance.

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