Sunday, January 8, 2012

William Stafford's Birthday Is Jan. 17: Some Thoughts on “At the Breaks Near the River,”

A celebration of the life and work of William Stafford will take place at the Hutchinson Art Center, 405 N. Washington, Hutchinson, KS on Tuesday, January 17th, at 7:00 pm. For more information contact: Mark Rassette, Hutchinson/Reno Arts and Humanities Council, 620-662-1280, . Other groups in Oregon and Kansas will hold celebrations. Here are some thoughts of mine on Stafford's success as a skilled poet, no matter what geography he inhabits:

William Stafford succeeded nationally because his skilled poems, so place-centered, transcended place. He leapt before Robert Bly explained “leaping” poetry as "a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance." This is the essence of Stafford’s verse, its movement from outer to inner sightedness, and back out again, but with a twist. He uses extreme personifications, with the same method as John Donne’s metaphors. According to Donne, two lovers are hands of a compass. According to Stafford, time can wave backwards. Stafford re-creates the world into a dimension with multiple timelines. The poem “At the Breaks Near the River,” in this volume, follows Stafford’s individualized formula of leaps among places, times, and imagined realities:
         Autumn some year will discover again
         that gesture of the flattened grass, wild
         on the Cimarron hills when a storm
         out of northern New Mexico raided
         Cheyenne country to hunt for rusty armor
         left by Coronado, and my father sifting his
         fingers in that loose ground of the Indian
         campsite said, “Oh, Bill, to know
         everything! Look—the whole world is alive,
         waving together toward history!”
Cimarron River hills are a definite place in southwest Kansas, in the path of New Mexico winds, yet the entire poem transposes to an imagined, conditional mood—something that could happen— by use of the indefinite “some year.” Time moves from seasonal cycles to historic ones to the poem’s eternal present—and again to a past-perfect (that which started in the past and ended in the past) future: “the whole world” of Cheyenne dominance and Coronado’s excursions remains “alive” and “waving” in this future. The trick of the poem is the last line, where instead of looking backwards at history, the narrator and the father see history as a future memory of the present. This is an invented verb tense. Perspectives pivot like this within all of Stafford’s language scrims.Yet another Staffordean trick is the unlikely personification of the intangible “Autumn,” which will “discover again . . . .” The poem reinforces the father’s assertion that “the whole world is alive.” Such animism not only concerns the natural world, but also the fluid elements of the entire cosmos. The moral of this short verse is: “Look.” These brief lines are an example of the kind of “looking” that Stafford’s “father” urges. (from Kansas Poems of William Stafford, 2nd ed., edited by Denise Low, Woodley Memorial Press, 2010)