An Oregon Message

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2003

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.”

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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:

My book fell in a river and rolledover and over turning its pagesfor the sun. From a bridge I saw this.An eagle dived and snatched the slippery volume.Now somewhere in the forest that book, educatingeagles, turns its leaves in the wind,and all those poems whisper for autumnto come, and the long nights, and the snow.

Many of Stafford’s personal poems detail specific childhood events: “First Grade,” “Uncle Bill Visits,” “1932.” Some, such as “To the Children at the Family Album,” recall his large family, especially his mother, father, brother, and grandmother. Others tell of rodeos, summer homes (“and the hurt of space after/ the others are gone,” in “Salt Creek”), and even his childhood fears (“Getting Scared”). “1940” recalls the day he entered the service and the last time he saw his father. The reader learns much about local superstition and family lore (“Bird Count,” “My Mother Said”). In “Stillborn,” Stafford associates the child he lost with nature—the river, stars, dark, and cold, each in an act of reverence, like bowing (“Where a river touches an island/ under willows leaning over/ I watch the waves and think of you,” and “Stars will rake the sky again,/ ... where you almost were”). At the end, the repeated word “still” suggests his own stillness or finality of thought, and like all of nature, he now bows to his child: “But while the thunder shakes the world/ and the graceful dance and the powerful win,/ still faithful, still in thought, I bow,/ little one.”

Many of these poems indict the materialistic modern society which has lost sight of the intuitive life. Of a wealthy couple, for example, conforming to the latest fashions, he writes: “She was a modern, you know./ He, you know, dealt in land./ ... Their house was well built, they say” (“The Big House”). In “A Day at Home,” he speaks of the superiority of the natural, passive life to the active, politically active one, for life “is better as/ history than it is as news.”

“Surrounded by Mountains” indicts institutionalized religion, whose “leaders called for/ a revival of spirit in the world,” and celebrates the more honest laws of nature: “Rice fields, yellow as sunflowers,/ marked off kilometers below us.” He contrasts “Certain statesmen from important/ nations [who] were considering a summit meeting,” with “Old Mrs. Osada, permanently/ bent over, [who] stirred the clods beside her.”

One should follow the heart (a “Lie Detector”) and hands, for “Inside your hands ... your fingers nestle communion” (“Waiting Sometimes”). Always an emblem of the intuitive, the hand grasps for and extends communication and is, as well, the creator of mythologies. True communication thus consists of gestures, and frequently, wordlessness: “Walking away means/ ’Goodby.’” “Leaning toward you means/ ’I love you’” (“Purifying the Language of the Tribe”). The title piece, “An Oregon Message,” declares that the human element has indeed survived the world of high technology, but it also admits the precarious safety one feels within this divided world. It is, paradoxically, the indifference of one’s neighbors and the political state that protects privacy: “Now our trees are safer than the stars,/ and only other people’s neglect/ is our precious and abiding shell,/ pierced by meteors, radar, and the telephone.”

A few poems treat entirely the joys within nature, in the discovery of natural cycles: “I laugh/ and cry for every turn of the world” (“Why I Am Happy”). Stafford exhorts the reader to identify and connect with all things, to “Love the earth like a mole” (“Starting with Little Things”). In a more transcendental vein, in “What If We Were Alone?” he asks: “What if there weren’t any stars?” and answers that we are compelled to find significance: “Look out at the stars. Yes—cold/ space.... Whatever/ our limits, we are led outward. We glimpse/ company.” A higher power rolls through nature, surging to us, comforting us, even naming us:

The moon rolls through the trees, risesfrom them, and waits. In the river allnight a voice floats from rockto sandbar, to log. What kind of listeningcan follow quietly enough? We bow, andthe voice that falls through the rapidscalls all the rocks by their secret names.

Although revelation may occur at any time and in many forms, Stafford most frequently describes its sound: “Listen—you never know in your life when Heaven/ will come” (“Barnum and Bailey”). In “Walking with Your Eyes Shut” he says: “Your ears receive a platter of sound/ ... like a great hoopskirt of listening through the world./ ... the whole sound sky balloons/ ... a great rich room, a musical sky.”

A few of his earlier concerns are only minimally represented in the volume: the Indian past (“Ultimate Problems”); ancient ruins (“Querencia”); his guilt in not participating in or changing history (“Confessions of an Individual”). Topical poems are rare; he offers one on atomic war, “Ground Zero.” In some, he pleads for the continuing myths that will make old age tolerable, for continued belief in patriotism, friendship, and family, even if they are lies—“please let me believe these incredible/ legends that have dignified our lives,” for “a past that redeems any future” (“Help from History”).

The weaknesses of Stafford’s intuitive style are obvious. “The Sparkle Depends on Flaws in the Diamond” concludes with these unfortunate homilies: “A dog that knows jaguars is no longer/ useful in hunting” and “You can lie at a banquet, but you have to/ be honest in the kitchen.” One of his poorest metaphors for the wealth of recollected experience is found in “Ode to Garlic,” in which “you breathe on the world, and it shines.” A few poems are heavily indebted to other moderns: “Looking for Gold,” recalls Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”; with echoes of Albert Camus and Wallace Stevens, Stafford ponders the possibility that the sky might be friendly and the universe benignly concerned with humankind: “what if the sky loved you?/ But nobody knew?” (“Say You Are Lonely”). “Four Oak Leaves,” in the language of Dylan Thomas, begins: “When I was green, everyone loved me” and continues “But then something called time began to drag me/away.”

The prominent focus of the volume, and its strongest verse, treats old age. “Learning How to Lose” bluntly admits of the games and hypocrisies of human interaction: “All your years learning how to live to win,/ how others judge you, who counts—you know/ it’s wrong: but those habits cling that brought you/ this freedom.” Frequently, his alarm over aging takes the form of direct statement, as in “Today”: “What have you done with the rest of my life!” Yet Stafford also celebrates the continuing mystery of life, and the volume ends with two affirming poems. “Practice” suggests that all of life is a rehearsal and that one should therefore forgive and be forgiven for all of his or her stumbling. Even nature is pardonable, as it too “moans with its river of wind. It stumbles.” In the poem that concludes the collection, “Maybe Alone on My Bike,” the subtlety and beauty of nature once again touch the poet. The poem is a simple yet rich statement of Stafford’s joy in living:

    Think!—the splendor of our life, its current unknownas those mountains, the scene no one sees.O citizens of our great amnesty:we might have died. We live.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14

Choice. XXV, January, 1988, p. 770.

Library Journal. CXII, August, 1987, p. 130.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, July 24, 1987, p. 182.

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