Tuesday, January 1, 2013

(1) Sturdy for Common Things

The first book on My Ideal Bookshelf, barely visible in the shadow on the left of the Dubus book, is Allegiances by William Stafford. It holds pride of place not just on its own behalf, but on behalf of the hundreds of poets and thousands of poems which have enriched my life, and which I might never have encountered if I had not first discovered Stafford, who set me on my way.

During my senior year of high school and my first two years of college, I worked at a small store in Fairfield, Connecticut which sold books and greeting cards. I tended the cash register, answered questions, and did such dusting and mopping and stocking of new merchandise as needed to be done. Eventually the owner, for whom the bookstore seemed to be a hobby to be indulged when he happened to be in the mood for it, took to leaving me to run the store myself. One whole wall of the bookstore was stocked with paperback books, and in the hours when the store was empty—and there were many of them—I'd often peruse the stacks and try to find something interesting to read. One afternoon I pulled a book of poetry off the shelf. It was called The Rescued Year, by William Stafford.

I should say that at this point, as an 18-year-old, I had no real interest in poetry. I had been the victim of the same kind of narrowly academic instruction that most students to this day are made to suffer with regard to poetry, which was presented as a kind of intellectual exercise to be approached and solved as a puzzle. The poets I had been exposed to—Donne, Eliot, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and the like—were using a kind of language which was understood to be elevated and freighted with Significance. Our duty as readers (and it felt like a duty), was to tease out the "hidden meaning" via a process of formal analysis.

It was therefore something of a surprise to me, and a considerable relief, to begin reading the first lines in Stafford's book:

The Tulip Tree 
Many a winter night
the green of the tulip tree
lives again among the other trees,
returns through miles of rain
to that level of color
all day pattered, wind-wearied,
calmly asserted in our yard...

This was a new idea to me, that you could write like this, that you could use very simple language and convey the movements of thought in a reflective, explorational way, even to the extent of bending the syntax ("to that level of color/all day pattered") in a way that doesn't sound right but feels right. I read that book straight through—the first time I had ever done that with a book of poems—and went back to the shelf for Allegiances, which offered up the first poem I ever committed to memory of my own volition:

Tragic Song 
All still when summer is over
stand shocks in the field
nothing left to whisper,
not even good-bye, to the wind. 
After summer was over
we knew winter would come:
we knew silence would wait,
tall, patient, calm. 
And that cold this winter gray wolves
deep in the North would cry
how summer that whispered all of us
at last whispers away.

I don't know about you. But for me, it doesn't get a lot better than that. The language is clean and simple, the imagery coherent and closely interwoven but also surprising, the point being made both sobering and eloquent.

Reading Stafford put a taste in my mouth that I wanted more of. It began a lifetime of reading poetry and writing poetry and (later) teaching poetry as if it were what in fact it should properly be understood to be: the product of another human being's very personal attempt to speak what is true in words that ring true. For, as Stafford says in the last two stanzas of the title poem in "Allegiances":

...once we have tasted far streams, touched the gold,
found some quiet limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful. 
Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler's ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
where we are, sturdy for common things.

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