Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635
“Things I Learned Last Week” is a wonderfully odd, apparently random poem that illustrates a central element of Stafford’s poetics. The poem at first seems remarkably offhand and unambitious, a simple disconnected listing of tidbits Stafford happened across during the week. Such an approach, lacking any grand intentions, reveals Stafford’s willingness to follow his impulses wherever they might lead him.
The first two stanzas record observations that one would not usually expect to find in a poem: “Ants, when they meet each other,/ usually pass on the right,” and “Sometimes you can open a sticky/ door with your elbow.” Hardly stunning discoveries, these facts amuse partly because Stafford has put them in the poem. They are some of the things he learned last week and so must be included. Perhaps they imply that everyone learns something by paying attention to the small, daily events that are usually ignored.
The next stanza humorously depicts a “man in Boston” who “has dedicated himself/ to telling about injustice.” It seems that the poem is about to take a more serious turn, but Stafford adds an element of irony to his description of the man by saying: “For three thousand dollars he will/ come to your town and tell you about it.” Stafford gently obliterates the man’s dedication simply by mentioning his lecture fees. The man has obviously dedicated himself to making a profit from injustice, making a career out of it, and so he himself commits a kind of injustice and a glaring hypocrisy. There is injustice in the world, no doubt, but Stafford sees that its opponents often participate in it, much as opponents of war often resort to violent protests.
Stafford has also learned some things about writers during the week, and he treats them, too, with a bemused irony. “Yeats, Pound, and Eliot saw art as/ growing from other art. They studied that.” Here, Stafford implicitly rejects the poetics of three towering figures of modern literature. Because they believed that art grew from other art, they studied art, forming a closed, elitist circle and cutting themselves off from the soil of daily experience—the soil out of which Stafford’s own poem grows.
The final two stanzas introduce a darker subject—death—but it is treated playfully at first. “If I ever die, I’d like it to be/ in the evening. That way, I’ll have/ all the dark to go with me, and no one/ will see how I begin to hobble along.” The use of the conditional “if” in reference to the one certain fact of existence, the preference for evening, and the hint of embarrassment at being seen hobbling along all make death seem hardly more than a clumsy problem of decorum. The final stanza, however, pushes the poem to a larger consciousness of death that is no joke:
In The Pentagon one person’s job is totake pins out towns, hills, and fields,and then save the pins for later.
It is one of the grim absurdities of modern life that one person’s job would consist of taking pins, indicating targets, out of maps. That he saves the pins “for later” is an ominous reminder that there will be more wars, that death on a large scale will come again, without regard to the poet’s preference for evening.
The poem begun so lightly thus leads to the inescapable knowledge of humanity’s destructive power and the constant readiness for war that hovers over human existence. Everything that precedes the final stanza, however humorous, takes on a poignancy when seen in the light of the threat of nuclear annihilation. A poem that seems pointless and harmless at first thus sharpens itself at the end by reminding the reader of the dark current running beneath daily life.
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