Poet William Stafford (1914-1993), fêted February 7 in a grand celebration through Portland, Oregon’s Literary Arts organization on the 100th anniversary of his birth, was “a man who could talk about the light because of the time he spent grinding through the dark,” according to fellow Portland poet, and the evening’s host, Matthew Dickman. In a sold out event—despite the uncharacteristic snowstorm that left many Portlanders unable to attend—Literary Arts and Lewis & Clark College commemorated the life of one of Oregon’s most renowned poets and one of country’s most revered names in the form. The centennial celebration at the city’s Newmark Theater featured some of the region’s—and nation’s—most accomplished voices; those, as Dickman called them, “who’ve chosen to engage in that same darkness to create their own light.”
Stafford, who spent three decades teaching at Lewis & Clark, won the National Book Award for Poetry for his 1962 volume Traveling Through the Dark and was the author of over 65 volumes of poetry, something he didn’t begin publishing until age 46. As Andrew Proctor, the executive director of Literary Arts, pointed out, “51 years after Stafford won the National Book Award, another faculty member at Lewis & Clark, Mary Szybist, won the National Book Award, making her the second Oregonian to win the award in Poetry. So I guess [Lewis &Clark] knows how to pick poetry professors.” Szybist, who received the 2013 award for her collection Incarnadine, was one of the participants in the events and recalled her debt to William Stafford as a poet and his influence on her own work. The title of her award-winning collection comes from a line in Stafford’s poem, “Ceremony”: “That was something the ocean would remember:/I saw me in the current flowing through the land/rolling, touching roots, the world incarnadined,/and the world richer by a kind of marriage.”
Along with Dickman—the poetry editor for Tin House magazine and a recipient of the Oregon Book Award for Poetry—and Szybist, the event included readings and reflections from Oregon’s current Poet Laureate Paulann Petersen, as well as poets Li-Young Lee (Behind My Eyes); Tony Hoagland (Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty), who was a last-minute replacement for poet Ted Kooser, unable to attend due to illness; and Kim Stafford, the late poet’s son and the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose, most recently the Oregon Book Award-nominated memoir, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do. Each reflected on the impact of William Stafford on their work as artists, and human beings.
Remembering William Stafford—his work and his life—Petersen described the poet as “seamless.” Stafford, “with every word he spoke, every word he word he wrote, with every act, he bore witness to his profound belief in the nonviolent resolution of conflict,” said Petersen. “Each poem, each bit of prose, each is the work of a life-long peacemaker. Seamless. To celebrate William Stafford is to celebrate his vision, his seamlessness. To celebrate William Stafford is to celebrate his peacemaking. And this world can use more peace-making. More people making those millions of intricate moves required for justice.” She made reference to one of Stafford’s most well-known poems, “Ask Me”—also the title of the recently published collection of essential poems from Graywolf—and reiterated that, like the river that appears in so much of Stafford’s work, “water has much to say about the earth and its creatures but has nothing to say about lines that try to divide ‘our’ kind from ‘their’ kind. A river, with its comings and goings from miles away, a river refuses to recognize lines of demarcation between a ‘we’ and a ‘they.’ A river speaks the language of this earth’s wholeness, its unity. A seamless language. And, yes, what the river says, that is what William Stafford would say.”
For Dickman, it’s difficult to “gauge Stafford's impact in the poetry world. I wonder where he stands now. Certainly poets of his generation, poets on the East Coast admired his work, his fierceness and elegance and his political stand against violence.” Stafford was a conscientious objector during WWII and spent four years doing alternative service in one of the country’s Civilian Public Service camps, an experience he later attributed to adding a certain coldness to his work; Stafford’s commitment to pacifism and his distaste for war and all manner of violent conflict resonates in his work, overtly as often as not. As for importance of the Stafford Centennial and what he hoped audience members would gain from the experience, Dickman said that he hopes “people take some of Stafford's advocacy for poetry away with them after this event. Stafford celebrated poetry and the poetry of others, he knew it was important for humanity, that it was dangerous because it supported things like empathy and love.” Those qualities, and the dark places where they often lurk and born, are what attracts both readers and other poets to Stafford’s substantial volume of work. As Dickman puts it, “I wonder if there can be any other way to think about a man who once said that he had woven a parachute out of everything broken. For many of us, that parachute has been a lifesaver, a reminder that we speak the same ecstatic, and sometimes violent, language that a river does. An engagement with nature to reveal what is human.”