Jerry Earl Johnston: Poet William 'Bill' Stafford: A quiet centennial for a quiet giant

Published: Friday, Feb. 14 2014 4:45 p.m. MST

This year is the centennial of poet William Stafford (1914-1993).

So far, it has been a rather tame and soft-spoken celebration, which, I’m thinking, is the way he’d want it.

Bill Stafford was a very busy, but quiet man.

Stafford visited Utah many times over the years. And as a book critic for the Deseret News, I spent many hours on the road with him. As he taught and read around the state, I always sensed that Utahns felt a special connection with his words.

But then, I suppose, so did the people in his native Kansas, his adopted state of Oregon and most of the other 48.

Stafford not only looked like a mixture of ethnic groups, he wrote that way.

In his poetry he used simple, concrete objects — stones, water, plants, animals, smoke, wind. And being raised as a Quaker, he had a Quaker way of writing about spirituality as “light” and despair as “darkness.”

That approach allowed his poetry to chime in harmony with dozens of faiths and many traditions.

Now, in the year of his centennial, it falls upon those of us who felt ourselves changed and made better by his words to share those words with others.

To that end, Graywolf Press has brought out a small collection of Stafford’s verse to honor him titled “Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems.”

The picture of Stafford on the front cover is a sepia-toned photo of the poet staring straight ahead into the camera, unflinching and completely aware. Like the kid at the railroad crossing, Stafford knew how to “stop, look and listen.”

During his life, I had too much to tell him and didn’t spend enough time learning.

But then Stafford could always “out-listen” everyone else in the room.

Here are a few flakes of gold I’ve shaken from the Graywolf edition of Stafford’s poems.

Most of the world are living by

Creeds too odd, chancy and habit-forming

To be worth arguing about by reason.

— from “Freedom”

If I ever die, I’d like it to be

In the evening. That way, I’ll have

All the dark to go with me, and no one

Will see how I begin to hobble along.

— from “Things I Learned Last Week”

Our Senator talked like war, and Aunt Mabel

Said, “He’s a brilliant man,

But we didn’t elect him that much.”

— from “Aunt Mabel”

Our mother knew our worth —

Not much. To her, success

Was not being noticed at all.

“If we can stay out of jail,”

she said, “God will be proud of us.”

— from “Our Kind”

More disturbing than book ashes

Are whole libraries that

No one got around to writing.

— from “Burning a Book”

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com

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