Monday, September 01, 2003

William Stafford, August 1993

A generous spirit pours through the luminous lines of his poetry. William Stafford wrote a poem just about every day. One of his many books, There's A Thread That You Follow, is comprised of poems he wrote in 1993, with the dates of their composition. He was 79 that year, ten years ago.

There are poems that evoke place, and a few that are savage in their politically charged commentary, as the one he wrote in June

Somewhere up there God has poised
the big answer to the new doctrine
written all over this country in concrete
by the corporation everyone has bought into
that leads to where the minotaur waits,

Waits just over there by the new mall,
or at the end of your carefully planned
university course, your Moloch Award,
your honors, your degree fastened like
a dogtag around your neck for life...

It so happened that in 1993, a slim volume of his poems selected by Robert Bly appeared. In his introduction, Bly used as a theme an image in a poem by William Blake that he and Stafford had discussed in a public conversation that was videotaped. Blake's lines are:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate
Built in Jerusalem's wall.

Bly wrote that he asked Stafford, "Do you believe that every golden thread will lead us through Jerusalem's wall, or do you love particular threads?" He replied, "No, every thread."

A reviewer noted that in the tape Stafford points out that every thread leads to a poem, not just the good ones--if you don't pull them too hard. Bly replies, "I hear you."

There are ten poems in There's A Thread That You Follow that Stafford wrote in August 1993, including one of his most famous---perhaps the quintessential Stafford poem. It was evidently written after the discussion with Bly and probably after Bly's book of Stafford's poems went to press. He wrote it on August 2. I can't think of a poem that means as much to me as this one does.

The Way It Is

There's a thread that you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you can do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.

In the book, there are three short poems written on August 25, one on the 26th, one on the 27th, and then a slightly longer one on August 28, 1993.

"Are You Mr. William Stafford?"

"Are you Mr. William Stafford?"
"Yes, but..."

Well, it was yesterday.
Sunlight used to follow my hand.
And that's when the strange siren-like sound flooded
over the horizon and rushed through the streets of our town.
That's when sunlight came from behind
a rock and began to follow my hand.

"It's for the best," my mother said---"Nothing can
ever be wrong for anyone truly good."
So later the sun settled back and the sound
faded and was gone. All along the streets every
house waited, white, blue, gray; trees
were still trying to arch as far as they could.

You can't tell when strange things with meaning
will happen. I'm [still] here writing it down
just the way it was. "You don't have to
prove anything," my mother said. "Just be ready
for what God sends." I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.

Well, it was yesterday. And the sun came,
It came.

Across the top of the poem he wrote to his wife, "with all my love." He didn't usually do that. Then he went into the kitchen to help her make dinner. A few minutes later, on August 28, 1993, William Stafford died.

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