Remarks presented at the Watkins Museum celebration of William Stafford's birthday, January 15,I am so honored to have known William Stafford, born January 17, 1914, at the beginning of my writing life. His person and his poetry influenced me to strive for reflective engagement with natural and human surroundings. He uses poetry for play, for surprises in language, for folding the outside patterns of nature into my inner life, comingling the two. He fit his poetics to align with the unique grasslands ecology of the region where he grew up, from Liberal to Hutchinson to Lawrence—where he received his BA and MA. The sparse landscape of horizontals with gentle angles of ridges creates a backdrop where any vertical, like a watermill or steeple or horse, becomes dramatic. Human experience is set against an enormous sweep of sky.
The most important aspect of Stafford’s poetics is his humility, which gives him the ability to step aside from the role of master over the wilderness, which was the biblical tradition. Instead, he took the pose of one who listens and learns, as in this favorite of mine, which suggests his Indigenous background: https://www.ayearofbeinghere.com/2014/06/william-stafford-listening.html
Listening by William Stafford:
My father could hear a little animal step,
or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us had never been.
More spoke to him from the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.
My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that other place.
He mixes the human and natural worlds, with the “moth in the dark against the screen” and the portal between the two realms, the “porch.” The porch becomes the interface between mortality and immortality.
A second point about Stafford’s poetics: his discussion of ethics. “Traveling Through the Dark” is the most well-known example of this, where he pauses and could “hear the wilderness listen.” He reverses the role of judge and makes readers aware that their actions, like his, have moral consequences. And finally, the language is subtle, like the landscape, with deep images that continue to build layers throughout the years. The dead deer by the side of the rode is singular and memorable. Not many details appear in the verse, and the image of the deer is the point, not the poet’s acrobatic use of vocabulary and rhetorical devices. Here is the poem “Traveling Through the Dark by Willilam Stafford: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42775/traveling-through-the-dark
My poem responds to “Listening.”
Variations on Keening by Denise Low
We would watch him look up and his face go keen. William Stafford
My father’s face goes keen. Cicadas drone as
darkness walls us in. His eyes are echoes
on fire. He speaks kennings. His wise eyes
turn blue fire. His prophet’s sight pierces night
with keen perception. Agate rings lie buried
in river mud. His eyes see their spirals.
A sunfish rouges under a keen-bladed knife.
Sequin scales flake. Its eyes darken into a stare
beyond ken. I keen. My father’s twin-star eyes
gaze equally into and out of the dark.
Wings (Red Mountain Press, 2021)
My play on “ken” and “keen” emphasizes my wonder at the same cosmos that Stafford knew in the grasslands of Kansas. I conflate him with my father, born a few moths after Stafford and twenty miles away. Stafford is my poetic father. His example of self-effacement, images, and focus on a few key words—these I try to follow. www.deniselow.net