Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Erland Anderson Remembers William Stafford

Poet and academic Erland Anderson , a frequent correspondent with William Stafford from 1975 to 1993, has sent us this memoir of their long association. His reminiscence ends with a revealing comment by William Stafford on his poem "Fifteen," the kind of information that usually goes unrecorded, and an interesting sidebar to Stafford's published account of the poem, reprinted in Crossing Unmarked Snow (1998). Dr Anderson's home page has two addresses, the easy to remember and the address listed in the document below.

Back and Forth: Los Prietos, Wendell Berry, Friends of Stafford, Friends of P. B. Shelley

Not until this January, 2010 had I managed to play a part in a William Stafford memorial celebration of his words. Thanks to Paul Willis of Westmont College, an outdoor reading was scheduled on a Saturday afternoon late in that month at Los Prietos, now a California State Park just over the Santa Inez Pass from Santa Barbara. California. Of course, that is the site of one of the camps where Stafford served as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and where he met his future wife, Dorothy.

Recent Stafford scholarship has uncovered plenty of new material relating to his development as a writer and poet at Los Prietos, with a clear focus on his writing habits and stance as a witness to events big and small. Before the reading that afternoon, Paul took me for a walk and pointed out several rows of stones, which are the remains of barracks from the days of the CCC and later the CO camps. “Of course, it is also the former site of a Chumash Indian village,” he added.

Then Paul had me look across the arroyo, brimming this rainy year with smooth-flowing water, to the mountain opposite and uttered a line from one of Bill’s poems written at the camp and describing the multiple thin layers in those massive white rocks. (Here, if I had been so fortunate, I would have liked to quote that line, but, alas, my memory fails.) [Perhaps Paul was quoting the opening line of The Country of Thin Mountains: “I tell you, friends, the mountains here are thin—” (July 1942) or the phrase from Meditation: “some day, looking along a furrowed cliff” (March 1943), both now in Another World Instead, pp. 29 and 38—Ed.]

Where memory doesn’t fail me, especially when it comes to quoting Stafford, can be easily reinforced by the many treasured poems I have returned to as a reader and a teacher of his and others’ poetry over the last forty-two years. The multiple contacts—as a student, a reader, a fellow teacher, a correspondent back in the days of snail mail, a fellow poet, and workshop participant—would be too long to trace here, but a few anecdotes from my memories of the various colloquies I had with Bill might be of interest to those with whom I share a common inspiration.

Vince Mowrey, who also read at Los Prietos that day in January, helped to bring me up to speed afterwards by sending me the CD called Every War Has Two Losers, and then a copy of Kim Stafford’s book-length memoir, Early Morning. It was after re-establishing contact with Kim and sharing shorter versions of the following pieces via email that Kim suggested I try weaving them as a blog on the William Stafford Archive website.

Oh yes, Kim suggested I should talk “recklessly,” so I will try.

My very first contact with the work of William Stafford arrived as a package at my apartment in Seattle a month or so after I moved there in 1968 to begin my graduate studies in English. As an undergraduate at UCLA I had drifted from the study of History and Anthropology to Literature and Languages, and, though occasionally trying my hand at a sonnet or two, I saw myself as having a vocation to teach first and then do research and write whatever might come. My impression of “creative writing programs” at the time, I must admit, was not especially positive, and I stuck to the heavy-duty reading programs in multiple European languages emphasizing major writers and historical periods.

When I finally opened that package in Seattle, out slipped three slender books of poetry—two in hard back (Traveling Through the Dark, and A Rescued Year) one in paper (Allegiances)—sent to me by a cousin in Kansas, who some fifteen years later I would find out had been my birth-mother. (So these books, in hindsight, already fit into a pattern of “tokens” from which I might have inferred a closer relationship to this “country cousin,” but at the time the details of my adoption were a dark, well-kept, family secret.) Back in 1968, it appeared that she simply shared my interest in wide reading and wanted to offer me a link between her favorite poet and my new residence in the Northwest. And, sure enough, it wasn’t long after I read through those books, noting her check marks next to the poems she especially liked, that her “Kansas poet” was scheduled to read on the University of Washington campus.

Doing a little preparatory reading before I heard him read aloud, I could tell that William Stafford was a poet who offered words that resonated with a consciousness of current national and local issues both deeply troubling and deeply reassuring. Whereas my education at UCLA had provided a penchant for modernist irony, Ivor Winters, and the “New Criticism” (which was in fact quite old by then), the University of Washington seemed like a deep immersion in an endless variety of poets who gave frequent public readings, culminating every spring with one in memory of Theodore Roethke. His ghost, it was rumored, still walked circuitously through the corridors of Padelford Hall, prodding on the surviving scholars who were his friends: Arnold Stein, Robert Heilmann, Otto Reinhardt, Brents Sterling and my future dissertation advisor, Edward E.Bostetter.

Appropriately enough, Stafford’s reading was a modest affair, but it left an indelible impression on me. Not certain why, I was nonetheless hooked. His words had been clear and accessible on the page, but something he projected audibly in his reading revived the timbre of his voice afterwards each time I encountered any new poems by him wherever they appeared. In my graduate studies I was gravitating toward the English Romantic poets and quickly made the connection between strains of that tradition in twentieth-century American literature, which he, despite the deceptively plain surface of his work, seemed to have cultivated into a finely expressive art.

Furthermore, don’t forget that it was the late Sixties, and every other male student I knew beginning graduate school that year was likely to be drafted into the “war effort” in Vietnam. Having been raised as a son of a lieutenant captain in the Navy during World War Two, I was far from a protester as the war began in the early Sixties. My own “A Draft for Vietnam” from a later chapbook, A Hollow of Waves, and which is accessible on my website,, details my transformation from Goldwater Republican to ambivalent protester by the end of that decade. Consciously or unconsciously part of my decision to move to Seattle had to do with the proximity of the Canadian border if things came to boil, and I had grown increasingly interested in alternative service myself, attending meetings at the Friends’ Church and examining my own conscience. It was a time of crucial decisions and many had to make them in a highly charged era of “political polarization” and media hyperbole without much calm, reasoned discussion.

So it was helpful to have a witness to similar inner conflicts and convictions from someone from my parent’s generation who had added current insights in his ongoing production of recent poems. Unlike louder, less temperate voices of protest, Stafford got to the heart of the matter with his steady demeanor and wry sense of humor. Here was a role model, closer to my own temperament, for learning a way to tackle the circumstances and potential vocations in my life without succumbing to anger and despair. Eventually I was to learn that his pacifist religious tradition in the Church of the Brethren had been part of my Kansas heritage on my birth-father’s side at McPherson College, and like his own brother, Bob, my relatives had mostly chosen to part from their religious backgrounds and participate dutifully through military service in World War Two.

Over the years of our contact, I shared these distant connections of mine with Bill and I made sure to stay abreast of many of his poems and publications on teaching writing and literature. When I, myself, was offered a two-week Poet-in-Residence position in Junction City, Kansas, and the local paper published my poem “Drop Drill” from A Hollow of Waves, Bill sent me a letter right away, which I received when I returned to the Northwest, telling me that one of his friends or relatives there had sent him my poem and the photo of me reading at the high school. I often consider that poem to be a kind of “Song of Innocence” from a third grader’s perspective on the unimaginable threats of a nuclear holocaust—a horror humanity has managed to avoid up to the present perhaps because we keep reading, writing, praying, and singing in the manner of William Stafford.

All the readings and panel discussions that I attended and that he participated in during the period from ’68 to ’76 went into my “Continental Drift” from Searchings For Modesto. Also at What impressed me the most was Bill’s ability to question the more academic poets, who often claimed that political poetry was too often written “from the gutter,” but also to frown, often visibly, at inflated rhetoric by others who departed too radically from the principles of non-violent protest and reconciliation

But I drift from my purpose of providing direct dialogues with Bill. At first I was a reader and listener to his poetry and an observer of his witness at gatherings in Seattle, but in 1973 I began teaching, first at Oregon State University and then at Portland State University, and that proximity aided in coming more frequently in direct contact with him. Other poets kept passing our way, too: Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Richard Wilbur, Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, W.S. Merlin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In Oregon, I began writing journal entries along with my students, and some of my own entries wanted to become poems, which I duly sent out for (not-too-frequent) publication, and collected in my first chapbook, Piedras (1978).

And, of course, by then it was my turn to participate in the dialogue my cousin had started by sending a copy of my poems to William Stafford. And, so like him, he responded to this fledgling work with a letter I cherish, complimenting my “well-placed” poems. After that, it was easier to go up and chat with a man who made a habit of corresponding to all writers, no matter their public status. I have a handful of notes, some instigated by the business of readings and travel accommodations, but all containing bonus descriptions of inner and outer events in his life as he thought they might relate to me and others.

By the early 1980’s “ecological metaphors” were all the rage, or at least had their moment in the Oregon sun when Wendell Berry, after giving a reading of his own poetry, also gave a lecture out in the Rose Garden during the Portland Poetry Festival that August. I happened to be sitting on a semi-circular cement embankment within earshot of Bill during that presentation in which Berry was attempting to define a poetic aesthetic regarding “nature poetry.” That dissertation was quite ambitious and comprehensive. One among its many examples of illustrious poets who had substituted mental fantasies for more down-to-earth, more-closely-engaged descriptions of nature was Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Berry’s argument was incisive and full of corroborating examples, indicting Shelley for projecting his erotic dreams onto nature from “Mont Blanc,” to the Vale of Kashmir, to the forests above Florence in a gathering October storm. Shelley had clearly allowed his imagination too much license, to the point of dangerous manipulation of facts and conspicuous over-consumption of nature’s beauties to facilitate his own myth-making. And the consequence of these choices put Shelley’s poetry on the side of Wall Street mass marketing and self-aggrandizement that threatened the planet with Mutually Assured Destruction.

Strong stuff! And not to be dismissed lightly.

During the lecture I noticed that Bill’s face showed he was alert but famously non-committal. Then, as Berry worked towards his conclusion, I noticed he was looking over at me from time to time to see how I was reacting to it all. Bill knew me by then for the chapbooks and attendance at readings at Lewis and Clark as well as Portland State. and I think he might have seen my book, Harmonious Madness: A Study of Musical Metaphors in the Poetry of Coleridge, Shelley and Keats. But as we stood up after the lecture, he walked right toward me and in that off-the-cuff (but rhetorical!) way of his, asked me: “Do you really think we need to abandon everything in Shelley?”

Of course, I shook my head, “no,” Or at least, “no comment.” Berry’s dichotomies were useful for argumentative topics, but Bill always had a few of “those obstinate questionings” that indicated a subtler, inclusive approach to aesthetic questions. He could even “lower [his] standards” enough to rescue poor Shelley in that moment from a philosophy that might have clipped his ineffectual wings.

Another time Penny Avila, who was Poetry Editor at The Oregonian in those days, organized a workshop at the Portland Zoo. Bill was there early that rainy morning and excited to be face to face with a badger out in the blustery weather. Though the workshop itself turned to topics like the choice of words such as “grasp” at crucial points in a poem, our main concern that day was the ash from a still erupting Mt. St. Helens, falling in the rain and soon to be kicked up into the atmosphere by cars on the roads.

In Fall of 1983, after beginning work with Lars Nordstrom on translating the poetry of Rolf Aggestam from Swedish, I moved down to Ashland to take a job at Southern Oregon State College, while still participating in the Poets in the Schools Program at two high schools in Salem, Oregon. Starting a poetry workshop in Ashland seemed a logical step, and Patti and Vince Wixon showed up. In a year’s time, along with Lawson and Janet Inada, we had initiated the International Writers’ Series in the Fall of 1984, with our first guest, William Stafford. Although I had been to Spain and to Moscow by then, Bill’s voice was precisely the kind we wished to begin with. After all, there are “Aunt Mabels all over the world/ Or their graves in the rain.”

Being away from Portland more often, excepting the annual Writers’ program at Portland State, I had fewer chances to chat with Bill, but thanks to Vince Wixon and Mike Markee, more video material began to surface for use in class when it came to reading Stafford with my students. By then, Judith Kitchen’s Understanding William Stafford had appeared, too.

One time, maybe the last time Stafford came to Ashland, I went up to chat with him about “Fifteen,” one of the poems he had just read. Along with “Aunt Mabel,” I had been using it to get “reader responses” from my students, but with more success with “Fifteen” than with “Aunt Mabel,” So I recklessly mentioned that to him.

Bill looked me in the eye and said, “Let me share something with you because I know you will appreciate it: the place I was imagining in that poem was near a certain bridge in town and what we found as kids wasn’t a motorcycle at all but an abandoned bicycle. But, you know, somehow my fifteen-year-old needed a greater temptation.”

I said, “He either is saved from stealing a motorcycle or misses his big chance to get out of that small town, and that’s what my students like about the poem. It really connects with their lives.”

“Yes,” Bill added, “that’s what I needed. I had to tell the truth in that poem with a little white lie.”

That comment hit me like the sound of a motorcycle roaring away.

Now, “looking back farther in the grass,” I can still picture Bill bringing me full circle back to the best defense of Shelley ever offered me.