The Mutual Parade of Our Life
In our conversations and correspondence over nearly 30 years, I noticed early on that two of William Stafford’s favorite words were converge and intersect—verbs of motion indicating bodies approaching one another, and perhaps connecting. Does this sound, maybe, like the setup of some of his greatest poems?
“The sharp swallows in their swerve/flaring and hesitating/ hunting for the final curve/coming closer and closer— ” (“The Well Rising”)
“ …there/are comings and goings from miles away/that hold the stillness exactly before us.” (“Ask Me”)
I have been thinking lately about those Stafford verbs in relation to our friendship, and for that matter, the now nearly 50 years of our ongoing friendship with the Stafford family. As it happened, although the circumstances for “convergence” were favorable early, our “intersection” came later than it might have—and improbably.
As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon in the late 1950s, I somehow had never heard of Stafford and his poetry, and likewise through my graduate years in English at the University of Washington. Ironically, I had to leave the Northwest in 1965 for New York state—and a teaching job at the University of Rochester —to make my Stafford discovery.
That winter, a friend, aware that my wife and I were acutely homesick, asked if I knew the poetry of William Stafford. No, I confessed, I didn’t. In reading through Traveling Through the Dark, I experienced then and there a shock of recognition that I hope never to recover from. The poems became indispensable in the way of great poetry as soon as I read them; and besides, some of them were vivid evocations of places in my home territory of Central Oregon that I hadn’t yet tried to write about myself!
So I sent Mr. Stafford a fan letter, addressed to Lewis & Clark College, not expecting a reply—but one came right back, cordially and enthusiastically suggesting that we ought to try to intersect when we were back in Madras next summer! That didn’t work out, but eventually our families did connect at Sky Ranch, our old homestead/summer range/retreat in the hills east of Madras. It was the start of a cherished set of friendships, and the prototype of subsequent visits to the place over the years. Bill’s lovely poem “Finding Sky Ranch” is displayed in the Oregon Convention Center—and also in the Sky Ranch living room.
From this first encounter, we kept in touch with Bill and Dorothy the best we could, given our busy lives East and West. Bill’s cheery assurance, as we tried to align our summer schedules, was always “We can zig to your zags!” His growing national reputation in the 1970s and ’80s made him a popular reader on poetry circuits, and he regularly subjected himself to marathon interlocking poetry junkets. Has there ever been an American poet so widely traveled in America, and so warmly welcomed in his visits to colleges, writing centers, and arts festivals?
Through it all, both at home and on the road, he kept writing, “headlong to discover” (very early each morning) what his way with words could turn up in the raw givens of experience. It was never Bill’s style as a celebrated writer to set up as a practical critic or writing master for other poets, but I know how much I learned (or should have learned!) from his occasional hints of approval or skepticism, and always from the simple heartening knowledge that he was reading the stuff I sent him. That was meat and drink to me and countless other aspiring poets that he corresponded with, and it is greatly missed still. This unstinting generosity to younger writers is part of the Stafford legacy and it will be, I hope, a keynote in next year’s Stafford centennial celebration here in Oregon and elsewhere.
In “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” Bill imagines the dire difficulties of maintaining “the parade of our mutual life” through the surrounding darkness. Not “lives,” notice, but ideally one life “on parade,” kept shared and humanly mutual through the honest attentions of each one of us to the others. Bill has left the parade, alas, but this rare vision of mutuality is central, I think, to what we celebrate in the man and his poems.