My Name Is William Tell

The poems in this beautifully produced volume were selected by Donnell Hunter from six limited-edition chapbooks printed between 1984 and 1990 on Hunter’s letterpress in Rexburg, Idaho. Like Stafford’s two previous collections, AN OREGON MESSAGE (1987) and PASSWORDS (1991), MY NAME IS WILLIAM TELL consists of Zen-like parables that defy not only traditional definitions of poetry but also fashionable avant-garde formulations. Stafford’s manner is so unassuming, his language so simple, that the reader is nettled into a response.

A perfect example of this “intellectual ju-jitsu” (as Stafford’s approach is aptly described by the Western Book Award judges) is the four-line title poem of the collection, which appears preceding the main text: “My name is William Tell:/ when little oppressions touch me/ arrows hidden in my cloak/ whisper ’Ready, Ready.’”

Simple yet enigmatic, this poem raises a number of questions. What is the relationship between the poet and the speaker of the poem? Let us say, provisionally, that the poet identifies with the speaker; what is he identifying with? It is a role, a stance: combative, self-reliant. Is there humor in this? Somehow it doesn’t strike a tone of bardic self-dramatization. And what attitude is the reader invited to take toward this declaration: “I am William Tell”? If the reader is roused to dissent—“who does he think he is, anyway?”—that may be fine with William Stafford. Perhaps the dissenter will read on, looking for an answer to that question.