An archives research project by Jessica Alberg,
Lewis & Clark College class of 2013
The room is hushed, candles line the isles of folded chairs and the light on the stage is strong so all attention lies on the man at the podium. He is in the middle of one of his poems when he pauses, takes off his glasses and looks up at his audience: "Do you ever get the feeling" he begins "that you'd go fucking mad doing a thing like this...maybe I will." The audience bursts into laughter.
|Photograph of Charles Bukowski by William Stafford|
|A review of the event by the newsletter "Poetry Flash Eleven"|
William Stafford is considered to be a very accessible poet, one whose poetry is able to touch and be touched by a wide variety of people. "William Stafford is a poet of understatement" commented one reviewer of the event. During the event, Bukowski drank from an orange juice bottle containing more vodka than juice, mocked Stafford, and while Stafford read, the Bukowski groupies of the audience hissed at him. Bukowski attempted to insult Stafford during the event by insinuate that he was soft: "Has he fainted yet?" "Should I do as Mr. Stafford does and say: 'I have two more poems left?' [takes a drink] I'm just a nasty born drunk I can't help myself." Why insult the person whom you have agreed to read with? Bukowski answers this at the beginning of the reading: "I hate precious poets and I hate precious audiences too. They destroy each other."
Yet, as readers of William Stafford's poetry, we know that the irony of a Bukowski and Stafford reading was not lost on Stafford, at one point he remarked: "Understanding the nature of tonight's reading, I have brought my very tamest poem." He went on to read "Passing Remark":
In scenery I like flat country.
In life I don't like much to happen.
In personalities I like mild colorless people.
And in colors I prefer gray and brown.
My wife, a vivid girl from the mountains,
says, "Then why did you choose me?"
Mildly I lower my brown eyes--
there are so many things admirable people do not understand.
Stafford did not come unprepared to the Bukowski reading--he knew what he was getting himself into. His response to the wild and crazy nature of Bukowski was to bring his tamest poem. Something which, maybe unrecognized by the Bukowski fans, was a bold move. This poem, and the context in which it was presented, are bold because Stafford is choosing to do the opposite of what is happening--he is taking the harder path by creating more distinction between himself and Bukowski. "In life I don't like much to happen/ In personalities I like mild colorless people"--these lines seem to address Bukowski's idea, that those who are extravagant and untamed are more interesting than those who are subtle, "precious" or mild. It is easy to appreciate the mountains, it is not as easy to appreciate the flat country. "There are so many things admirable people do not understand." Stafford ends his poem in a way which speaks to more than the mildness of "colorless" people. There is something inside these people that, because they are mild, allows them to better admire what is vivid, what is appropriately admirable. They are picky in what they choose because they see the vivid maybe more clearly than those who do not appreciate the simplistic. In September 1980 Stafford received a letter from a farmer named John Budan, who opened his letter by remarking that he had seen Stafford: "I saw you in person once, in San Francisco and it was sad because you read poems with Charles Bukowski who was very insulting." Stafford not only touched they city dwellers of San Francisco during this reading, but as well a farmer who had come into town. That he was able to touch someone during a reading considered a "theater event" by some of the critics means that Stafford had a strong voice and though he did not have the the flamboyant and crazy attitude of Bukowski, Bukowski was not able to shadow Stafford. Bukowski drank a bottle of screwdrivers but Stafford stayed sober and managed not to lose control of a daft event. In a letter to Stafford from Fraser after the event, Fraser stated: "You are most generous regarding a most unusual, unexpected and, for me, overwhelming EVENT..." Stafford also read a poem he included in his book, Writing the Australian Crawl.
We’d have an old car, the kind that gets
flat tires, but inside would be wolfskin
on the seats and warm fur on the steering
wheel, and wolf fur on all the buttons. And
we’d live in a ranch house made out of
logs with a loft where you sleep, and you’d
walk a little ways and there’d be the farm
with the horses. We’d drive to town, and
we’d have flat tires, and be sort of old.
Another, seemingly, mild poem about mild people.
Stafford wrote to Bukowski four days after the event. His letter is surprising but speaks to his character.
|Stafford letter to Bukowski|
Charles Bukowski replied almost a month later.
|Bukowski letter to Stafford|
Bukowski's letter is truly opposite Stafford's letter, which is apparent from the first sentence: "You show excellent style in contacting the enemy." While in Stafford's first paragraph he calls Bukowski a "partner," Bukowski calls himself William Stafford's "enemy." But this is not with the intent of ill will, but rather just a funny way Bukowski saw it. Most of Bukowski's letter is hard to decipher, and takes great patience. But there are a two moments that, with regards to William Stafford, must be pulled out. The first is in Bukowski's second paragraph:
...what those in the poetry audience misunderstand...what those who rail against me and cheer you--we are both, somehow, on the same side, and that kindness is knowing whatever we can know and to put it down in the light of seeing. you say it one way, I say it another. but all we are asking is a chance to live. To live with blue slippers on our feet and sausages cooking over some flame. we don't even ask love. we are wiser than that.
What Bukowski points to here is something Stafford speaks to often in his poetry: The Truth, honesty, the poet recognizing the feeling of something and being able to follow it. A poet is honest when someone else would have been nice. As well, Bukowski is returning to his idea that while he and Stafford are "enemies," they are also on the same side by putting the truth into the light so that the audience can see it. What the audience cannot see is Bukowski and Stafford's connection. These poets are more connected than we as readers can seemingly see.
Bukowski's final paragraph seems to reveal to Stafford a very personal side: "it's just as well we hadn't met. I do things stupid. I am powerful but I am frightened," Bukowski says. This seems to be the most honest line of the letter. It was quite common for people say that they revealed to William Stafford things they never thought they would say, and it seems as if Bukowski was also pushed to say something. Right after this note he launches into made up words and strange sentences, and becomes impossible to understand--as if the moment before was too much. And of course, one cannot leave the letter without noticing the handwritten notes on the side and the drawings, no more than one can go without noticing that Bukowski has spelled his first name wrong. All things that seem to describe Bukowski, even from his signature introduced with merely a "yes" which was not a way he normally signed. It is not quite clear what the "yes" refers to, if it is to the "thank you for writing me" or to something in Stafford's own letter, such as the "good luck."
Both poets wrote honest letters, letters that were completely reflective of their character. Their letters not only show the difference between them, but also show the similarity between the poets. These letters, and this poetry reading, show us the connection of poets. How they, never mind what we as an audience think, "...[are] both, somehow, on the same side...[and] knowing whatever [they] can know...put it down in the light of seeing."
This is a video of Bukowski reading at the 1973 San Francisco event. It contains feed of almost every moment he is on stage. There is no surviving video of Stafford's portion of the reading.