Traveling Through the Dark (William Stafford, 1962)

I just finished this book after two years of reading; a very long time for one collection of poetry, especially one as short as this — 100 pages, more or less. I am glad I went slowly, however. Some of his language reminds me of early Auden, although that is a comparison I am not truly qualified to make — still, I saw it, whether or not it is accurate. But aside from those very occasional moments of obliquity, most of the poems in this volume are deceptively simple, making it easy just to rush through, reading for sense and the evocative phrase without looking deeper. I still lack a proper aesthetics of poetry, so I cannot really articulate what it is that deeper means to me, but experientially I found that if I liked a poem on first reading, it was worth my time to read it four or five times, slowly, pausing between the readings to feel the shape of it. Once the shape came, I could enter into it, or perhaps it to me, and feel the connections that poetry makes outside of words or logic or thought, which for me is the greatest reward of reading it; it is a knowledge like the knowledge of the body, how I may ride a bike or type these words or slice an apple without having to think through each instant of motion.

Here is one poem I liked very much:

Things We Did That Meant Something (1958)

Thin as memory to a bloodhound’s nose,
being the edge of some new knowing,
I often glance at a winter color–
husk or stalk, a sunlight touch,
maybe a wasp nest in the brush
near the winter river with silt like silver.

Once with a slingshot I hit a wasp nest:—
without direction but sure of right,
released from belief and into act,
hornets planed off by their sincere faith.
Vehement response for them was enough,
patrolling my head with its thought like a moth:—

“Sometime the world may be hit like this
or I getting lost may walk toward this color
far in old sunlight with no trace at all,
till only the grass will know I fall.”

What may I say about that better than what Stafford said himself? To do something which means, to release oneself from belief into action, the way that in nature there is reaction to the action without thought, and the realisation of fragility, that the world may be rocked by a blow out of nowhere, whether it is the outside world or one’s internal world. It is very simple, a clear picture, a story of a moment, and it also expands into much more. To be simple without being facile is either a great gift or hard-earned craft; Stafford, I think, began with the first and in his habit of writing daily developed the second. I am looking forward to more of his work, read slowly over the next years.


2 thoughts on “Traveling Through the Dark (William Stafford, 1962)

  1. I like his daily writing practise, as well; I found myself lingering for quite some time over the scans of his notebook pages, all the paragraphs of thought and observation, some of which he distilled into poetry.

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