by Keith Taylor
A couple of decades ago Gemini, the popular local acoustic duo, set several poems by William Stafford to music. Stafford's poems are quiet and plainspoken and at first glance might not seem to be likely candidates for becoming songs. Luckily, the Slomovits brothers have more acute ears than the rest of us do. Hearing the Stafford poems sung revealed a music in their poetry that might have escaped us otherwise.
After William Stafford died in 1993 at age seventy-nine, his son, Kim, wrote Early Morning: Remembering My Father, a memoir whose title alluded to Stafford's habit of rising early to spend a couple hours alone writing poems. This unrelenting daily practice informed much of Stafford's work. In one of the great traditions of American writing, the process of artistic creation became for Stafford as important as its result.
This does not mean that Stafford didn't write memorable poems. The title poem from the book that won the National Book Award in 1963, Traveling through the Dark, seems to have been included in every anthology of American poetry published since. It is so well known and its memorable quietness so widely (and often poorly) imitated that it has become possible to overlook its enduring power. That poem famously begins:
| Traveling through the dark I found a deer |
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
| At noon in the desert a panting lizard |
waited for history, its elbows tense,
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.
It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.
There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows
The hands gripped hard on the desert.
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