Sunday, February 1, 2009

William Stafford and the Super Bowl





I wonder if poet William Stafford ever watched the Super Bowl. I doubt it. I also doubt that he believed himself to be superior to such mass entertainment. I suspect he might have simply not been interested in the game.

I've been reading his book, An Oregon Message, a book of poems published in 1987. Somehow I ended up with an autographed copy. I'm no handwriting expert, but my wild guess is that Stafford was left-handed. At any rate, he was roughly 73 years old when he published this book, and he prefaced it with this note, which I think I'll reproduce in full:

"My poems are organically grown, and it is my habit to allow language its own freedom and confidence. The results will sometimes bewilder conservative readers and hearers, especially those who try to control all emergent elements in discourse for the service of predetermined ends.

Each poem is a miracle that has been invited to happen. But these words, after they come, you look at what's there. Why these? Why not some calculated careful contenders? Because these chosen ones must survive as they were made, by the reckless impulse of a fallible but susceptible person. I must be willingly fallible in order to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.

Writing poems is living in that realm. Each poem is a gift, a surprise that emerges as itself and is only later subjected to order and evaluation." (page 10 of the paperback).

As always, Stafford is sly--even in this preface. "Organically grown" not only alludes to a Romantic (as in British Romantic, Wordsworth, et al. ) point of view, but also to the term "organically grown," which had become ubiquitous in American marketing of food in the 1980s. With regard to art and poetry, "organic" doesn't have the "granola" connotation many people immediately think of. It's not a "touchy-feely" term. It simply refers to the way in which a poem or another kind of art finds its form, as opposed to filling up a predetermined form like a mold. You might think of "organic" in this context as the opposite of "formulaic."

I observe with pleasure the Christian--in the broadest sense of the term--note in the preface: a poet or a person has to be willingly fallible, as opposed to willful or arrogant, to receive poems. Of course, one need not be a Christian or even necessarily a person of faith to approach art this way. One need only be receptive in a certain way. Patient.

In Stafford's view of writing, one receives the language. This point of view does not, of course, mean that whatever one receives is good. It simply means that whatever one receives, one receives--a gift to consider. Then you take a look at it. Maybe you put it in a bit more order. Maybe you evaluate it. Maybe you decide you don't quite know what to make of this gift, so you put it on a shelf for a while.

This is the kind of "theory" of creativity that most literary critics don't get because they need something either more outlandlandish and grandiose or more logical. Stafford's way is too "in between." Perhaps it's too simple.

But to think of a poem as a gift, perhaps a modest gift indeed (who knows?), is a nice way of looking at poetry. Wait for the words. They usually arrive. After they arrive, take a look at them and see what you have. It's a bit like panning for gold. And almost no one pans for gold to get rich. One pans for gold because one enjoys panning for gold.

But what really astonishes me is that, at 73, Stafford apparently still felt he had to explain himself, his way of writing. True, it's not as if he were insecure or revealed insecurity in the preface. And there's some wry humor in these paragraphs of his. (In another book, in reference to critics, he says simply, "Thanks anyway."). Nonetheless, by age 73 Stafford had produced so much interesting poetry that one would think he wouldn't need to "explain" himself. It makes me a wee bit sad that he felt that way.

I met him once, in 1974 or 1975, when he came to read at U.C. Davis. He wore a simple "dress" shirt without a tie. I liked his laconic, clear way of reading. As was the routine then, we all gathered in a small classroom in Olson Hall. Maybe there were 20 of us. Ridiculous. He deserved an audience of hundreds. But so it goes with poetry. After the reading, we gathered at Karl Shapiro's house for a reception, and I asked Stafford about imagery. Shapiro rather liked poems to be overloaded with imagery, whereas (it seemed to me, a mere youth), Stafford was a little more comfortable with conversation in his poems, even as they included fine imagery. I forget his answer to my question, which probably wasn't phrased very well. I had to leave soon after that because, of all things, I was horrifically allergic to Shapir's cat. So it goes.

But oh my goodness am I enjoying the poems in An Oregon Message, poems Stafford waited for and received.
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