Sunday, January 16, 2011

William Stafford, January 17th (repost)

This is mostly reposted from a year ago. Gun violence is much in the news, and while the poem is about something different, it also rhymes slant. Toasting this year is tragic and more complicated.

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

Browsing his poems with drink in mind (and in hand!), we'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.

We 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.

It's an odd poem, and we don't know what to make of it - but that's perhaps why it's interesting. Stafford was born, raised, and educated in Kansas. Are we 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. 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. It's not easy to maintain straight up some alignment of Stafford-homefolk-good and Capote-city man-bad.

Does anyone have a different reading?

It looks like the only Salem celebration is on the 23rd:
4 to 6 p.m. Jan. 23: Sponsored with The Fellowship of Reconciliation, bring a Stafford poem and potluck item to share, Salem Friends Meeting House, 490 19th St., SE, Salem. Contact: Janet Markee janetmarkee at mac dot com


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  3. BIRDS IN THE WALL (Final Revision)
    (Inspired by OPB's Discovering William Stafford)

    Ever since she was a kitten
    I've been shutting doors on her.
    My bedroom door always closed
    when she needs or wants me.

    My bedroom butts up against the
    den's wall where the tv, desktop
    computer, and printer wires lay,

    and sometimes late at night
    or early in the morning
    when all I do is want to sleep,
    I hear birds in that wall.

    rarely, the latch doesn't catch,
    and there's an explosion of fur,
    and next a thud on my stomach.

    though my slumber is rocked,
    I'm delighted to greet her.