William Stafford’s Poetic Calibration of Perspective – The Marginalian


Yes: William Stafford’s Poetic Calibration of Perspective

When a recent bout of illness sent me sulking with indignant disappointment at the ruin of long laid plans, I had to remind myself that we were never promised any of this; that it is hubris and self-importance and almost touching delusion to expect an indifferent cosmos to bend to our will, our wishes, and our plans; that meeting the universe on its own terms is the end of suffering.

Through the haze of what Virginia Woolf called the “wastes and deserts of the soul” exposed by being ill, I remembered a lovely calibration of perspective by the poet and peace activist William Stafford (January 17, 1914–August 28, 1993), found in the posthumous collection The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (public library).

by William Stafford

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out — no guarantees
in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

Stafford had a late start as a poet — his first major collection was published when he was 48. And then the poems that had been writing themselves in him all his life came pouring out, spare and stunning. Within eight years, he was elected Poet Laureate of the United Staes.

The morning before he died in the final year of his seventies, he drafted a poem containing these lines:

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.

Complement with Viktor Frankl, writing shortly after his release from the concentration camps, on saying “yes” to life in spite of everything and Henry James on how to stop waiting and start living, then revisit Barbara Ras’s kindred poem “You Can’t Have It All” and Hannah Emerson’s cosmic howl of yes yes yes.


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