Monday, March 4, 2013

Tuesday Poem: William Stafford

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford
January 17, 1914 – August 28, 1993

The American poet William Stafford, the 1963 recipient of the National Book Award for Poetry, published 57 volumes of poetry. A man of gentle nature, Stafford was a conscientious objector during WWII.

I was fortunate to take a workshop with him in 1992, at the Olympic College Writer's Conference, In the keynote address, he said, "It's not what life hands you, but what you do with what life hands you". Those words have been a guiding light for me in the 23 years since I heard him speak.

Stafford wrote 22,000 poems in his 79 years — an astonishing output of writing. I heard him say that he got up every morning and wrote 40 lines — no more, no less.

And although I have many favorites, the poem above is new to me. I read it for the first time last week when a co-worker brought in a program to a memorial held to honor the Seattle artist Susan Balshor, who recently passed away. This poem was on the back page of the program.

The line "following the wrong god home we may miss our star" undid me, pure and simple.

 May we all follow the right god, and find our star.


  1. How perfectly beautiful. Thank you for posting this poem and the words about Stafford.

  2. Oh this is a lovely one - I didn't know it, and now that you've told me how many poems he wrote I'm not surprised that I hadn't met it before! Thanks a bundle.

    1. lillyanne, I too was astounded at the volume of poems he produced. It almost seems an impossibility. Nevertheless, when I mentioned this poem to a dear friend, he said it was his favorite. What are the odds?

  3. a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break....that one undid me, T. what a spectacular poem.

  4. This is the poetry of earnestness, of solemnity, feeling, ritual -- a lost, or unappreciated art in America. The country seems ripe for a return to this sort of straight-talk. I suspect America will soon awake from its ironic stupor, and circus elephants parading tail-to-trunk will indicate trust and affection once again. The rhythm here -- five easy sentences -- flows as truthful as the voice.

    1. Zireaux -- "I suspect America will soon awake from its ironic
      stupor" -- we can only hope. In the meantime, it's writing such as this that sustains me.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. it's absolutely stunning. Just what I needed true and wise. I shall copy it out and keep it.
    Thank you.

  6. Helen, I have a copy by my bathroom mirror, where, (apparently!) I spend a lot of time.

    So delighted that this resonated with you! When poetry does this — leaps across oceans — I know that all is not lost, and that I may still have faith in the world.

  7. Helen, I have a copy of this by my bathroom mirror, where (apparently!) I spend a lot of time.

    When poetry does this — leaps across oceans — I know that all is not lost.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment!