William Stafford once said that a poem was a serious joke, “a truth that has learned jujitsu.” And that when you’re stuck, you should lower your standards and keep going. And that he would trade all his poems for the next one. And that writing is a reckless encounter with whatever comes along. And that you must revise your life.
Over the last few years I have fostered a serious appreciation for the work, and approach of William Stafford. I just finished typing what could be considered my second collection of poems. It would be fair to say many are influenced, like a contact high, by the poetry of William Stafford.
He has changed how I view writing and teaching, and has been a serious catalyst in my life. His book, and the implications in the title alone, You Must Revise Your Life has helped me view the role and approach of writing in a healthy way. I just finished reading a biography of Edgar Allen Poe. That’s a fun comparison.
To become a better writer you must become a better person. He gave me hope that you could carve out a writing career without sacrificing family and sanity. After I read Kim Stafford’s Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford I too embraced the habit of getting up earlier than everyone else and being open to what words came. His poems, his book Down in My Heart, and his many interviews have all been like midwives to my creativity.
Reading his poems, and reading about his life, have encouraged me to continue in my nebulous and ill-defined task of being a writer, of being the kind of person poems occur to, happen to. It feels like traveling through the dark. His observation about people not starting to write poems, but rather, at some point they stopped, has even lately led me to other pursuits like painting and drawing and music that I once did, and delighted in, like my kids are doing now, but then somehow stopped. My son was insisting that corn kernels makes no sense at all. They should be cornels. And he’s right. We all start out as poets, but many stop.
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A few years ago I spent a weekend with a thousand English teachers in Portland. There were a half dozen panels and speakers related to William Stafford. I went to a workshop titled “William Stafford’s Habit of Not Quite Knowing” by an Oregonian reporter and former student of Stafford. It sounded promising, that being my habit as well.
We read his poem “Traveling Through the Dark” and looked at his various revisions and his retelling of when he knew it was going to be a poem. There were fifteen English teachers reading the same poem. A few folks got caught up on the capitalization of river in the line with “Wilson River road” and then it was interesting hearing the disparate views on other parts of the poem.
A woman from Montana said that her students were always ensnared by the logistics of the dead deer. A teacher in Portland said that his students would ask why he didn’t just call 911. And a woman from Wisconsin once hit a deer that was nursing and the poem was so raw for her that she was in tears and she almost walked out when we read through it again. She said it was so hard to read that she would never do it again. Which seemed rather extreme. The poet Richard Russo, apparently said “I don’t want Bill Stafford thinking for me. Just push the damn deer in the river and get going.”
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I was excited to try that poem in Falls City, the small town where I teach. I did it the last week of school, at the point in the year where nothing really works well. And also, in all honesty, at the point in my career where I wonder if it’s all worth it.
So I read the poem with my students during the last week of school. I ask how many haven’t seen a dead deer in the last month, and some insist they can’t go ten minutes without seeing one. Where I expected a callousness and indifference, like the lady from Montana suggested her students gave her, I found something else. Where I expected boredom, I found naive, yet bold claims.
The poem describes a man who finds a dead deer, with a live fawn, along the road while he was driving at night. He stops and pushes it into the river.
And what surprises me about my students is that many claim that they would perform emergency C-sections with whatever tools were available. Half of the students claim this. I would suggest that I have evidence to counter their resilience, resolve, and compassion, but most of them are classwork related. Perhaps we can write that off.
Some of the same people who adamantly defended their resolve and courage to perform an emergency C-section on the deer and nurse it back to health also very proudly admit to just the other day accidentally stepping on newborn kittens and then taking them out back and shooting them with a shotgun to put them out of their misery. They show the kitten blood on their clothes.
I don’t think half of the population of my school would attempt an emergency C-section on a dead deer on the side of the road. I really don’t. Some backpedal and admit that they would go get their dad to do it, or drive it to the vet. But some, I don’t know.
I know of four students who have nursed wild animals back to health. I’ve seen the I-Phone photos of abandoned coyote cubs being bottle fed by a high school girl. If I had to bet, I think somebody might. Just one of them. But I’m not sure who.
Just think of the pocket knife stabbing in. Missing, we hope, the life inside. It would be a mess. They admit to wanting to do the surgery, to enjoy thinking about the possibilities, about the options. They loved the conversation. They said they enjoyed the class that day. They don’t, however, admit to liking the poem, the source of the conversation.
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Sometimes you get the right book, or author, at the right time. That’s what reading is all about, after all – when the right you, meets the right book, at the right time. I ran across this sentiment from Wendy Lesser in her book Why I Read:
Reading can result in boredom or transcendence, rage or enthusiasm, depression or hilarity, empathy or contempt, depending on who you are and what the book is and how your life is shaping up at the moment you encounter it.
I made my students write this out once. It’s the kind of thing that stays on the board and I hesitate to erase. Running across William Stafford a few years ago was like the right book hitting the right me at the right time.
It has always been my hope that I could do and be that for others.
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