(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Andrews, Tom, ed. On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Holden, Jonathan. The Mark to Turn. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.

Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999.

Pinsker, Sanford. “William Stafford: ’The Real Things We Live By.’” In Three Pacific Northwest Poets. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Stafford, Kim. Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2002.

Stitt, Peter. “William Stafford’s Wilderness Quest.” In The World: Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.