William Stafford Tribute

Thursday, 1/19/12, I posted the following on Facebook:
    “At 2 p.m., Sunday, in the Village Books Reading Room, ‘a bevy of poets’ will celebrate William Stafford’s birthday (1914-1993) by reading 1-3 of their poems reflecting his influence on their work. This was originally scheduled for Tuesday evening, but weather intervened.
“If you’re in the area and you have the afternoon off, stop by. You’ll hear some pretty good poems by authors who knew Stafford as teacher, workshop leader, lecturer, or U.S. Poet Laureate. Several of us did not know him personally, but through his poetry or iconic attributes. Jim Bertolino will emcee.
    Although I never met Stafford, I see his focus on everyday events, common people, our relationship to place, and our search for quiet places, in many of my poems.
    It will be fun and stimulating. I hope the date and time change, or remnants of this week’s storm, don’t keep the chairs empty. It ain’t no fun readin’ to empty chairs!
    Sunday evening: It happened. A dozen poets read from Stafford’s and from their own. It was not quite SRO; there were a few vacant chairs.
    It was a good party with its own anniversary with Jim Bertolino celebrating his sixth year as emcee, for which he was given a hearty round of thanks.

    My contribution was with the following comments and poetry:

Kim Stafford wrote in “Afterword” of Even in Quiet Places that one time a woman in the audience said aloud during one of his father’s readings, “Why, these poems are so simple, I could have written them myself.” Stafford replied, “But you didn’t.” She looked up at him, and he said, “but you could write your own.”

All I can say is, “Teacher, I try.”


I must admit that I had recently read William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark” when I wrote the draft for this first poem while sitting in the Calgary airport:

The Commute

During an early dawn commute

in the after-fog of a summer storm

north of Calgary

through a windshield blurred with road oil

I see tire skids in the gravel

plowing ruts to the brink of a ditch


a deer half-buried in turgid muck

belly up

neck twisted

one bulbous eye staring into cattails

I drive on


My second poem is dedicated to Anglican priest and Anglo-Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, a contemporary of William Stafford who shared similar attributes and foci, although he lived 7-8 time zones and a culture away.

    Welsh Hireling

“If you can till your fields and stand to see

The world go by, …”

—R. S. Thomas, “Iago Prytherch”

A miniature tractor works a not-too-distant field

raises clouds of dust from

behind an age-old fence of rocks and impenetrable hedge

as it circles the tight corners

of a medieval field enclosed by clergy and crown.

A metallic clatter resounds across the hillside

as harrow teeth spring and snap the rocky terrain,

preparing for midsummer fallow

before seeding a new grazing cycle.

Does its driver hunched over his controls,

lurching in continual jolts,

own the field he tills?

Or is he a hireling, whose birthright,

his claim to the land,

was forfeited by ancestors?

Does he work from hire to hire,

wasting his muscles

as this incessant wind thins his hair,

furrows his brow, and

dissuades his dreams?


“Stand by the river

listen to the sound,

to the voice speaking

the truth of this place.”


These words epitomize Stafford’s The Methow River Poems, and could easily do the same for my Upper Skagit River poems.

River Sings

For my brother

Snow, avalanche, and scree;

creeks, ponds, and seeps,

collect in reverberating rush,

cascade in mountain pools,

eddies glazed undercurrents.

Mosquitoes and deerflies,

humorless protein,

psalmic multitudes,

survive winter’s minus.

Spring, tempered and wet,

its creeks quicken and swirl.

Tawny duff and flecks of sun

conceal newly dropped fawns.

Eagle, salmon, and raven

sing this river’s song—

sing as it flows—




This river sings as it

sprays cool mist,

splashes rocks with

syncopated rim-shots.

Cottonwoods rustle in tenor,

maples in baritone,

as softly this river sings

through mist and fog.

Softly, its spirits sing

of a mountain’s ashes

rising in evening drafts.

Wild and free, this river sings.