Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"William Stafford: Genius in Camouflage" by Jonathan Holden

William Stafford was born in Kansas on this date (January 17) in 1914. Therefore, I recommend readers revisit the following essay exploring memories of Stafford by Jonathan Holden that appeared in the Fall/Winter 2000-2001 issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review (Volume II, Number 1).

William Stafford: Genius in Camouflage

In 1972, five years before driving to Missoula, Montana, to interview Richard Hugo, I was a student in the Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado. I was driving into Denver with my friend Reg Saner to conduct a Poets-in-the-Schools program. We had turned off U.S. 36 onto I-25 and were heading straight toward downtown Denver when, in one of those moments James Hillman discusses in The Soul’s Code, dictated, perhaps, by one’s daemon, I realized what I should do with my studies—with my life. I should drop the pathetic idea of doing a thesis in medieval literature to please some father figure and instead do a thesis in twentieth-century American literature, about William Stafford. My thesis would be immediately publishable, for there were no books about him. Best of all, I could drive out to Lake Oswego and interview him for the book. I could actually meet him.

The first time I met him was in July 1972 at his house. He was fifty-eight. It was thrilling to meet him, but it was daunting, too, because he was so much like my own father, Alan. Wiry, elfin, with the face of a fox, Stafford was curious about everything around him, absolutely alert. Alan had graduated from Harvard with a B.S. in chemistry in 1925, the year after Stanley Kunitz had. They both graduated summa cum laude. All my life I had been surrounded by Bell Labs physicists gossiping about who was in line for the Nobel Prize this year, who was at Cal Tech, who was at Cambridge at the Cavendish Laboratory, who was at M.I.T. (The gossip of scientists is depressingly similar to the gossip of writers.) Like the Bell Labs scientists, Bill was on the leading edge of his field, lecturing everywhere, everywhere in demand. He was a genius. From being in the presence of Bell Labs geniuses for my entire childhood, I’d learned to recognize them, like a bird-watcher. I had to. It was a kind of survival technique, to avoid making a fool of oneself in the presence of some of the most high-powered intellectuals in the world. Some of them had worked with J. Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project. Los Alamos had been their vortex.

In his book Alone with America, Richard Howard refers to the “arrogant otherness” of the persona in Stafford’s first poetry collection, West of Your City. It has been pointed out by the poet/critic Judith Kitchen that “West of Your City” alludes to Frost’s title North of Boston. “Your city” is Boston. “You” is Frost. Howard, the quintessential New Yorker and European traveler, is right, but only partially. Stafford’s “otherness” wasn’t arrogant. It was the otherness of every major mind I’ve had the privilege to observe. It was the neutral, appraising, canny posture of intellectuality—an appetite that is aesthetic, amoral, and endlessly curious. And cold. What must have it been like having Stafford as a father? Not easy. It is now legendary how Stafford, so as not to disturb his family, would get up well before dawn to write. He described the routine in his poem “Mornings”:

rested, the brain begins to burn
and glow like a coal in the dark,
early—four in the morning, cold, with
frost on the lawn.

We are familiar, too, with Stafford’s cooperative venture with his son Kim: the book Braided Apart. We are less familiar with the fact that Stafford’s eldest son, Brett, killed himself. Brett must have felt as I did: compared to Alan, I would never measure up. Virtually Alan’s last words to me—we were discussing Wittgenstein—were, “Son, until you know German, you’ll never understand Western culture.”

When Stafford’s son Kim visited Kansas State in the fall of 1998, as the primary speaker in a conference in honor of William Stafford, he and I talked about Brett’s suicide in 1988. Kim said that the suicide had been about a love affair and that his father had said of Brett: “He wasn’t mean enough.”

Meanwhile, the mistaken identification of Stafford as a “regional” poet continues: In the New York Times obituary of August 31, 1993, the headline read, “William Edgar Stafford, Professor and Poet of the West, Dies at 79.” The writer, Wolfgang Saxon, wrote:

Both his life and his writing looked westward or to the Northwest, and he found his themes in small-town family life and in nature. His work was infused with the vast expanses of desert and prairie, mountain ranges and sky.

Like a fox, like a wildcat, Stafford lived his life in camouflage. He camouflaged his true nature. A poem which for me epitomizes this camouflage is his poem “For the Governor” in Someday, Maybe:

For the Governor

Heartbeat by heartbeat our governor tours
the state, and before a word and after a word
over the crowd the world speaks to him,
thin as a wire. And he knows inside
each word, too, that anyone says,
another word lurks, and inside that . . .

Sometimes we fear for him: he, or someone,
must act for us all. Across our space
we watch him while the country leans
on him: he bears time’s tall demand,
and beyond our state he must think the shore
and beyond that the waves and the miles and
the waves.

On the surface, the poem is about a man campaigning for the governorship of a state like Kansas. But read closely, the poem yields a second meaning. The poem is about the relation of the mind to the body. “Across our space / we watch him while the country leans / on him: he bears time’s tall demand.” The mind is able to conceive of its end, the body’s eventual death. Moreover, the mind is able to conceive of itself: consciousness of consciousness is what makes us particularly human. This, the poem’s true issue—Stafford’s intellectuality—has been camouflaged. I asked him about a female figure named Ella who appears in some of his poems about rural Kansas life. He remarked that “Ella” is a female third-person pronoun.

A second well-known poem, “Report from a far place,” camouflages its sophistication in a way that is also typically Staffordian. The poem reads:

Making these word things to
step on across the world, I
could call them snowshoes.

They creak, sag, bend, but
hold, over the great deep cold,
and they turn up at the toes.

In war or city or camp
they could save your life;
you can muse them by the fire.

Be careful though: they
burn, or don’t burn, in their own
strange way, when you say them.

At first glance, this poem appears to be about writing, “making word things.” Read closely, however, it appears to be more about reading than about writing, especially the lines “In war or city or camp / they could save your life; / you can muse them by the fire.” The cleverest line, though, is the offhanded remark “and they turn up at the toes.” Often, in Stafford poems, casual asides are profound. If we think of the way in which the turned-up toes of skis or snowshoes deflect the snow, deflect the world, we find a metaphor for the way in which the abstract nature of words deflects the world from us and thus keeps us from suffocating in existence, allowing us to ride “on top of” things momentarily. The title puzzles us, until we remember that in Stafford’s symbolic vocabulary “near” means “kindred” and “far” means “different.” The “far” place which imposes “word things” upon the world is the mind.

There is another side of Stafford, though, that dispenses with camouflage. It is not affable. It is fierce. We glimpse this side, at the end of “Our City Is Guarded by Automatic Rockets,” where he says:

There is a place behind our hill so real
it makes me turn my head, no matter. There
in the last thicket lies the cornered cat
saved by its claws, now ready to spend
all that is left of the wilderness, embracing
its blood. And that is the way I will spit
life, at the end of any trail where I smell any hunter.

The last piece Stafford published before his death was a review of the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forche. His approach to the anthology is prickly:

But there are inherent problems in a collection like this. For instance, the individual glimpses that create the distinction of poetry put a strain on the thesis of the book; books that buckle down to the thesis can hardly attain the shiver of the unexpected that distinguishes lively discourse. We can be informed; we can encounter the thoughts and emotions of significant people . . . but it takes something more to validate the poetry experience.

And later in the review he writes:

A further problem above achieving authenticity in a survey like this one lurks everywhere in the selections: quality is primary, but the need for wide representation put a strain on that criterion. And how vividly do you have to suffer in order to qualify?

I feel a bump when the explanatory note says, “the Germans decided.” All Germans? And similarly when Carolyn Forche says, “My new work seemed controversial to my American contemporaries.” (Who, me?) The labels in the book . . . put a torque on me, snagged my attention, kept me wary of living on the emotional high of atrocity hunger.

Morally and intellectually exacting as Stafford’s mind was, there was a softer side to him. I glimpsed it most vividly in the summer of 1987 when he and I were on the staff of the Port Townsend Writers Conference. Several of us were being driven back to Fort Worden State Park from dinner at a restaurant. Stafford was in the front seat, Marvin Bell was beside me in the middle seat. As we drove past a brightly lit bar that was the students’ hangout, Marvin called to the driver to let him out there. Stafford burst out to Marvin: “Must you?” It was a motherly gesture, pure reflex, like a mother instinctively reaching out to stop a toddler from walking into a busy street. I realized that he loved Marvin.

When, the day after Stafford suffered his heart attack at home, Henry Taylor called me with the news, my first thought was, “How lucky to go like that, that cleanly,” and that Stafford had indeed led a lucky life. He himself had told me as much, years ago at Stephens College, when I had invited him there. I don’t remember what I was mumbling to him, but he suddenly faced me and glared at me, pure wildcat: “You don’t understand.” He hissed it. “I was just lucky.” He took nothing for granted. And I thought, also, of Willa Cather’s famous story “Neighbor Rosicky”:

The old farmer looked up at the doctor with a gleam of amusement in his queer, triangular-shaped eyes . . .. Rosicky’s face had the habit of looking interested—suggested a contented disposition and a reflective quality that was gay rather than grave. This gave him a certain detachment, the easy manner of an onlooker and observer.

The end of the story describes Rosicky’s friendship with his daughter-in-law, Polly:

She had a sudden feeling that nobody in the world, not her mother, not Rudolph, or anyone really loved her as much as old Rosicky did. It perplexed her. She sat frowning and trying to puzzle it out. It was as if Rosicky had a special gift for loving people, something that was like an ear for music or an eye for colour. It was quiet, unobtrusive; it was merely there . . .. After he dropped off to sleep, she sat holding his warm, broad, flexible brown hand. She had never seen another in the least like it. She wondered if it wasn’t a kind of gipsy hand, it was so alive and quick and light in its communications—very strange in a farmer. Nearly all of the farmers she knew had huge lumps of fists, like mauls, or they were knotty and bony and uncomfortable looking, with stiff fingers. But Rosicky’s hand was like quicksilver, flexing, muscular, . . . it was a warm brown hand, with some cleverness in it, . . . and something else which Polly could only call “gipsy-like”—something nimble and lively and sure, in the way that animals are.

I would like to imagine that William Stafford died as Rosicky did, as described by Willa Cather:

After he had taken a few stitches, the cramp began in his chest, like yesterday. He put his pipe down cautiously on the window-sill and bent over to ease the pull. No use—he had better try to get to bed if he could. He rose and groped his way across the familiar floor, which was rising and falling like the deck of a ship. At the door he fell. When Mary came in, she found him lying there, and the moment she touched him she knew that he was gone.

In my experience, Cather is the only author to describe accurately, without sentimentality, in the figure of Rosicky, the mysterious, inexplicable quality of human goodness—its elusiveness, its disinterestedness, its absence of vanity. William Stafford understood all this. He lived it. Determined to keep the truth of his genius from embarrassing us, he camouflaged it as carefully, as considerately as he could.

—Jonathan Holden

[Readers will find a group of poems by Jonathan Holden and an interview with him by Chris Ellis in the Fall/Winter 2000-2001 issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review, where Holden appeared as the featured poet. In addition, all are invited to examine an earlier post on “One Poet’s Notes” containing my essay concerning William Stafford’s most famous poem, “Traveling through the Dark.”]


Anonymous said...

Stafford's contribution to our understanding of the creative process is tremendous. I find no-nonsense inspiration in _Writing the Australian Crawl_

Unknown said...

thanks for this . . . I recently ranted on my blog that Stafford is better than the New York School put together, which is ridiculous hyperbole and not true by any measure,

but he means more to me than they,

so I say it anyway——

Andrew Christ said...

This is one of the most insightful essays about Stafford's poetry that I've read. Thank you for posting it.

Jeanie Thompson said...

Thank you for posting this. It resonates in many directions, not the least of which is to show us again the complexity of Stafford as a poet and his humility -- so refreshing always. I hope young writers read this and can understand it as a valuable piece of American literary history.

Anonymous said...

I first read Stafford over thirty years ago in a collection titled Naked Poetry and his words were marked by such stillness, humanity, and mystery that he stood out even among famous poets like Ginsberg and Creeley. I just knew that I loved Stafford's poetry immediately and still do.

Scot Siegel said...

Thank you for this, though I am not sure 'camouflage', with its military connotation and implied deceit, is appropriate here. Stafford's writing (poetry and prose) was so close to his persona, so I am told, that what strikes us is the absence of camouflage. Yes, he was clever as a fox (or coyote), but this is who he was.

For mistakes that worked so well.
For tomorrow if I'm there.
For the next real thing.

--WS, from "Passwords"

Thank you for sharing the essay.

Scot Siegel
Lake Oswego, Oregon
(if you agree, friend me on facebook)