April 1999     

Last Dance

Congratulations, Erich

Pedestrian Safety

NALSA

SABER

Graduation Pledge

Seven-Year Reflection

Small Claims and Cinnamon Rolls

Church of the Earth

Y2K Nuclear Threat

Tribal Members Speak

INS Are
Thought Police

In re Robin E.
LOVE, Debtor

Selected Crime
Beat Reports

Living Large: Downtown

Haiku Variations

The Light

William Stafford

perspective

Spring Wave

Poetry Notes

 

An Unknown Treasure Among Us:
The Work of Lewis & Clark’s Own William Stafford

By Adam Cornell

A man of uncommon curiosity, creativity, and courage once walked among the Lewis & Clark community. From 1948 until his death in 1993, William Stafford inspired and provoked students, faculty, and staff as a poet, teacher, mentor, and friend.

Stafford lived in Kansas most of his early life. During WWII he refused to participate in the war effort. Instead of fighting in foreign lands or supporting the military at home, he was sent to a conscious objector camp for the duration of the war. It was soon after the war that he came to the Northwest to begin a quiet life of writing and teaching. His life would influence writers, scholars, and students well beyond the tall pines of Oregon.

Stafford served as Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress (now known as the National Poet Laureate), and from 1975 to 1989 he was the poet laureate of Oregon. He was awarded the National Book Award for Poetry, the Award in Literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Shelly Memorial Award. Last November, Stafford’s life was celebrated with the dedication of the William Stafford room at the Aubrey Watzek Library.

I doubt many of you have ever heard of our unknown treasure. Unfortunately, the dedication of the Stafford Room was not widely publicized, and only a handful of people were invited. It is too bad that the dedication was not open to the public in general and the law school community in particular.

The often sterile study of law requires occasional encounters with creative language that call on us to consider not only the sacred constellations of Truth and Beauty, but also our everyday experiences and observations. Stafford always managed to do all this in a single poem with force and poignancy. Take, for example, the following poem, Lost Little Orphans:

Leaves took them in, lost
them, numbering along through summer
and the wind. Reading their story, I follow
those leaf hands, and every vein guides
fate. I agree with all that happens
at the end: right, right, right.

No other guide but is
leads onward, then disappears after persuading
my look. But even today when I trace the right
leaf, the real world I have earned
falls upward, and I lie on the ground,
hands curled for orphans and all their tomorrows.

Compelling us to reflect on the indiscriminate vein pattern of a leaf while bringing us to empathize with an abandoned child, Stafford offers a unique pathway to the timelessness of the human experience. Though many writers use clever metaphors to convey ideas, it is Stafford’s accessible language that made him so extraordinary as a poet.

His deceptively didactic language is as much a product of his motivation for writing as anything else. Unlike many poets, he did not write merely because he had something to say, but instead so that he might engage himself in the world.

In reading Stafford, I have always had the experience that I was peeking at someone else’s somewhat self-conscious letters to a friend, lover, or even a colleague. This observation came to me while sitting with Stafford in his kitchen one morning in August 1992. My high school English teacher had been one of Stafford’s students, and, knowing my love for his poetry, had arranged for me to meet him.

I had tried to think of a few provocative questions during the drive to his home: issues concerning allegory, metaphor, and simile. When I finally sat down with him, my most basic curiosity about this great man’s work got the best of me.

"How do you write?" I remember asking him naively. He replied simply, "I get up at about 4:30 a.m. and write what comes to me." During the course of our half-hour meeting, I listened to Stafford talk of the challenges and rewards of writing. I remember little of the dialogue, but much of my sense of the man.

While sitting and talking with Stafford, I did not get the impression of a Proustian figure locked in a room for months on end tearing his hair out before, during, and after every sentence. My impression was of a person trying to convey very accessible ideas and feelings with little concern for calculation or self-criticism.

We understand Stafford’s ideas because he thought as we do in our everyday lives. In his essay A Way of Writing, Stafford declares that "I must follow my own weak, wandering, and diffident impulses." Rarely do we know where we are going in our writing. While most of us fear this uncertainty, Stafford used it to make himself a more thoughtful and coherent writer. He set an important example not only for our lives as writers, but also for our lives as attorneys, mothers, fathers, sons, brothers, sisters, and friends.

We write letters not only to convey information, but to affirm our own experiences—perhaps to give them a name. Stafford’s poem The Summer We Didn’t Die well illustrates this quality.

That year, that summer, that vacation
we played out there in the cottonwood—
we were young; we had to be brave.
Far out on those limbs above air,

We played out there in the cottonwood
Above grown-ups who shouted, "Come down!"
Far out on those limbs above air
We were brave in that summer that year.
No one could make us come down.

"You’ll be killed!" We were scared, but we held on.
That year, that summer, that vacation,
no one could make us come down.
We were young. We had to be brave.

Grounding himself in the real or imagined long-ago experience of climbing trees (and getting away with it), Stafford legitimizes an experience that we can inherently relate to—namely, being a child, or, even in our lives now, being childlike.