“The Way It Is” by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

 

From Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems. Graywolf Press (January 7, 2014).

Begin Again

Poetry laid back and played dead until this morning. I wasn’t sad or anything, only restless. ~ Alice Walker

A funny thing happened during my hiatus at the beginning of the year. I began to question my need for written poetry–for words and writing in general–until I had convinced myself that I truly didn’t need it, that it was a luxury . . . a fluffy, cloud-chasing time-consumer that distracted me from living a three-dimensional life. Poetry was to be found in the natural world around me, I rationalized, in the act of living itself. I wanted to see if I could live without the words and, instead, focus on the experience.

I say it was funny, but in reality it was rather sad. What I found–and I see this now in retrospect–was that I grew flatter and more isolated; I was living in “3-D”, but without an outlet, I was left living in my own head, trying to process my own thoughts . . .  I wasn’t reading poetry, so I wasn’t reminded that those feelings I had floating around were part of the human condition, and I wasn’t writing, so my feelings remained stuck and repressed, until, I’m convinced, they manifested themselves as illness. I grew ill–physically and mentally–and, ironically, I couldn’t even live the three-dimensional life I had so craved. I was the untethered elephant Stafford had warned us about. I had gotten “lost in the dark,” and I did not “recognize the fact” until much later.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break.

Poetry had laid back and played dead, I thought, but perhaps it was I who had betrayed it by shrugging away. So it was one evening in the midst of a sleepless slumber that I turned once again to poetry–not just any poetry, the very poetry I had shared here. I went back to the beginning, and I began reading, again. And perhaps here’s the funny thing . . . I began to feel better. Some things we can’t explain, they must be taken on faith, but I am convinced that some people simply need poetry–need words–to survive. Or maybe not to survive, but definitely to thrive. I shared with a friend this morning (regarding technical versus creative writing), “It’s like eating rice and beans every single day. It will sustain you, but it won’t fulfill you.” The things I had turned to in lieu of written poetry had kept me alive, but hadn’t kept me healthy. I was surviving, but I certainly wasn’t thriving. But as with anything, balance is key, and that’s what my life had been missing all along.

I know many of you found strength and solace here in these daily poetry and words posts. I know I led you to believe that I would be back sooner than now. I know many of you must have wondered what happened. I imagine one or two of you may have even felt let down by my unexplained absence. I apologize, I hope you can forgive me. I wasn’t well, but I have returned, and I am healing. I have missed poetry. I have missed you.

I may struggle to find that elusive balance for a bit. Posts may be intermittent and unpredictable, but perhaps that can be a good thing. A little spontaneity, a little surprise; I hear they can be chicken soup for the soul.

So what say you?
Shall we begin again?

Let’s.

And where exactly does one begin?

Well at the beginning, of course.

Of course.

And so it is that we return to the beginning. To the very first poem I posted here, to the very poem that first saved my life, to the very poem that saves it again.

*************

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, Dream Work.

************

I was just guessing
At numbers and figures
Pulling the puzzles apart
Questions of science
Science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

I’m going back to the start

“August” by William Stafford

It comes up out of the ocean
warm days. It reaches
for inland meadows and sighs
across grass in its cape of rain.

People come to their doors.
They look where the trees turn
gray, where hills have stepped back
of each other. Whatever it was,

It passed carefully, touching
farms, leaning over ponds,
bending down the wheat.
People stand long at their doors.

“You were good this time, August
Old Friend. So long. So long.”

William Stafford, The Body Electric: America’s Best Poetry from The American Poetry Review

“When William Stafford Died” by Robert Bly

Well, water goes down the Montana gullies.
“I’ll just go around this rock and think
About it later.” That’s what you said.
When death came, you said, “I’ll go there.”

There’s no sign you’ll come back. Sometimes
My father sat up in the coffin and was alive again.
But I think you were born before my father,
And the feet they made in your time were lighter.

One dusk you were gone. Sometimes a fallen tree
Holds onto a rock, if the current is strong.
I won’t say my father did that, but I won’t
Say he didn’t either. I was watching you both.

If all a man does is to watch from the shore,
Then he doesn’t have to worry about the current.
But if affection has put us into the stream,
Then we have to agree to where the water goes.

~ Robert Bly, from Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected Poems, 1950 to 2013

William Edgar Stafford (January 17, 1914 – August 28, 1993)

***

Listen to Robert Bly read select Stafford pieces in the video below. Bly reads his own poem, “When William Stafford Died,” at timestamp 11:11.

From Minnesota Men’s Conference‘s YouTube description:

Robert Bly reads selected poems by William Stafford shortly after his passing, discussing in personal terms exactly what made him a legend, culminating in a powerful poem written to his late friend. Recorded at the 1993 Minnesota Men’s Conference.

 

“A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

 

“A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford, from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems © Graywolf Press.

 

(With a grateful nod to long-time reader “Strumsky” who has mentioned this as a favorite poem in comments past; I didn’t forget. ❤  A poignant poem for a world that seems to be “lost in the dark.” One of my favorites. ~Christy)