An Oregon Message (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
This is William Stafford’s eighth volume of poetry, and it recapitulates many familiar themes: the joys of youth and depletions of old age, the power of intuition and appeal of the natural world, the limitations of technological society, and the need for individuals to connect intuitively with one another. Once again, Stafford’s scenery and language are simple—of water, rocks, birds, the earth, wind, and all things blue and green—and his images are of flight, roads, and the emblems of reverence and awe manifest in nature and human interaction. Rhythms and rhymes are informal, and on occasion parts of speech exchange their traditional functions. This is a poetry of direct and deeply felt experience. Stafford is the quintessential Romantic poet at work, writing from divine inspiration the “miracle that has been invited to happen.” Poetry, as he writes in “Some Notes on Writing,” is “organically grown” verse, arrived at from “reckless impulse.” Stafford allows “language its own freedom and confidence.”
The result, equally true of much other Romantic verse, is an unevenness in quality, an occasionally prosaic statement and banal imagery, as well as occasional awkwardness, didacticism, and flaccidity. At his best, however, Stafford is extremely moving in his evocations of the instinctive life and heart as the agencies through which one may attain life’s most significant riches—a sense of community with family, the historical past, and the human and natural cycles readily experienced through the earth, sky, rain, and air. On occasion, he has intimations of a higher, more permanent reality.
The volume has a particular intimacy about it; its verse is predominantly lyrical, rather than narrative (characteristic of his earlier collections). These are meditations of a man sensing the end of his life, taking stock of his accomplishments and the tasks that remain. Stafford was born in 1914; he has lived and taught for most of his career in the Pacific Northwest, mostly in Oregon. Many of these poems recall his youth in places such as Salt Creek, Querencia, and Osage County, and they detail the specifics of local place and time, or comment on a particularized innocence and capability of youth. Analogically, they deal with aging and the losses and compensations of maturity. The best poems also include meditations on the function of poetry.
Although the collection contains 116 poems divided into five numbered sections—“The Book About You,” “Serving with Gideon,” “A Writer’s Fountain Pen Talking,” “Saint Matthew and All,” and “The Big Picture"—each grouping consists of short pieces that touch on the same themes, organize around the same clusters of imagery. On the subject of writing, for example, he begins with “Keeping a Journal” and tells of how the physical and emotional act of writing is more important that the words he writes: “More important than what was recorded, these evenings/ deepened my life....” He cultivates the pose of the ascetic: “it was easy for me with my little candle/ to sit late recording what happened that day.” He is distracted by the soft rain, which—and typically emphasizing the sounds of nature—soon “drum[s] wildly for attention,” animating his candle, inscribing itself upon the walls of his life, which even if permanently unabsorbed—“that scribbled wall—even if/ it stayed blank"—passes into the reservoir of his life experiences. He joyfully welcomes his muse, who is his “own way of looking at things” so that “every/ glance at the world” is “a sort of salvation” (“When I Met My Muse”).
“Little Rooms” and “Fame” epitomize his goals in writing. In the first, a sonnet, he describes himself in a birdlike pose: “I rock high in the oak—secure, big branches—/ at home while darkness comes.” Lonely, yet absorbed by a swelling passion, he embraces the cool night of air, deep space, and the moon, which he would share with the reader. Yet the further he ascends, the deeper is his connection with the earth; again in aural imagery, he describes how he hears “deep roots grow.” In the sestet, the earlier “darkness” and “airy space” transform into newly born realms of poetic intensity: “rooms in a life, apart from others, rich/ with whatever happens, a glimpse of moon, a breeze.” Of his newly acquired knowledge of the wind, he writes: “I have put my hand out/ on the mane of the wind, like this, to give it to you.” His hand is in a priestly gesture, also typical of the poet in his act of benediction or composition—an exchange of generosity and love with the reader.
In “Fame,” he expresses a yearning for his verse to blend with nature in its cycles of growth and metamorphosis:
(The entire section is 2005 words.)
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