Friday, January 15, 2010

Beer Poetry for a Birth Day: Stafford Considers Capote

William Stafford was born on January 17th, 1914. Toast the birth day of one of Oregon's finest!

It seems like a good time for another installment of beer poetry! (Tea Party Bookshop is hosting a celebration and reading from 2pm - 4pm on Sunday.)

Browsing his poems with drink in mind (and in hand!), I'd say he thought about coffee far more often than beer. Perhaps he didn't drink alcohol. Neither eating nor drinking provided much of his imagery, however. It didn't seem to be a way he related to the world or to other people.

I did find one poem that uses fermentation as a metaphor, and I'm certain he was thinking of grain, not grape. (Needless to say, this is not very representative of Stafford's poetry.)

In 1959 Truman Capote saw this notice in the New York Times:
Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain

A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged....

Capote spent four years working on a book about the murders, In Cold Blood. Harper Lee was his assistant.

A few years after the book came out, Stafford wrote a poem.
Holcomb, Kansas

The city man got dust on his shoes and carried
a box of dirt back to his apartment.
He joined the killers in jail and saw things
their way. He visited the scene of the crime
and backed people against the wall with his typewriter
and watched them squirm. He saw how it was.
And they - they saw how it was: he was
a young man who had wandered onto the farm
and begun to badger the homefolk.
So they told him stories for weeks while he
fermented the facts in his little notebook.

Now the wide country has gone sober again.
The river talks all through the night, proving
its gravel. The valley climbs back into its hammock
below the mountains and becomes again only what
it is: night lights on farms make little blue domes
above them, bright pools for the stars; again
people can visit each other, talk easily,
deal with real killers only when they come.

I find it an odd poem, and I don't know what to make of it - but that's perhaps why it's interesting to me. Stafford was born, raised, and educated in Kansas. I feel like I'm supposed to read him and the poem in solidarity with the "homefolk" and against the "city man."

Stafford also seems to distrust the product of fermentation - Truman Capote, the "homefolk", all of them are getting a little carried away, "sophisticated" in a use we don't see much any more - even though it's hard not to think that he himself fermented experience in his own notebooks, journals, and poems. As I read it, the poem quivers with more than a little ambivalence about creativity and the thefts or invasions it might entail when raw experience is fermented by someone else into art. Even though I feel the poem pushing for it, I can't maintain straight up some alignment of Stafford-homefolk-good and Capote-city man-bad.

Does anyone have a different reading?

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