Category Archives: Favorite poets

Bedtime reading

    My bedtime reading has always been kind of a ritual. Currently, I read a poem, if it is a page or shorter, followed by a couple pages of prose. That is, if I don’t fall asleep first. Right now I am rereading William Stafford’s ‘Even in Quiet Places,’ poems collected from several chapbooks that his son Kim and several associates made after Stafford’s death. I’m particularly attracted to ‘The Methow River Poems.’ For prose, I’m rereading ‘In Pharaoh’s Army,’ Tobias Wolff’s memoir of the Viet Nam War.
    Both of these writers share my valley, the Upper Skagit, with me. Stafford wrote some of his last poems at the request of two forest rangers as he traveled over the North Cascade Highway; and Wolff is an alumnus of my high school, Concrete HS. Two cautions: He came about 20 years after me and ‘This Boy’s Life’ is a highly imaginative memoir and the movie even more so.
    What is on your bed stand?

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

and

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.”

        —RLH


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


This
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—

dammed,

tunneled,

diverted!


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.

I Begin my Path to Poetry, Part II

Shortly after I retired, someone observed that I wrote free verse. Not sure what they meant, I looked up the definition and examples of it. During this “research,” I discovered Harriett Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine and the Imagist movement. In 1917, she published The New Poetry, in which she and others breaking with Victorian poetics defined Imagists’ verse as poetry written with directness, simplicity, sincerity, individual and nonconforming diction, rhythm, and precise emotion. Since then, many have called this classic free verse.

Although my favorite poet changes with each poem I am working on, Wendell Berry, Ted Kooser, Gary Snyder, and R. S. Thomas stand above all others as favorites.

Among their common attributes that attract me are their sense of place, their concern for threats to the natural world and indigenous subcultures, and their apprehension over increasingly negative relations between society’s aspirations and the environment. As writers, they think globally, but write regionally, expressing in their own ways the spirituality of nature and worrisome environmental crises.

Wendell Berry (b. 1934). Farmer-writer and environmental philosopher, Berry lifts his readers into the spirituality of man and his natural environment. He understands the various meanings and implications of humankind’s dominion over all living things. At the same time, he is committed to agrarian values and to solving problems of living in the reality in which he finds himself, using nature as his model. A quotation from Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997 (1998) that I take to heart is “a poem need not be just a fabric of printed words to be laboriously raveled out by students or critics, but is (or can be) written in a speakable and hearable language, the integrity of which begins and ends in the quality of the music.”

Ted Kooser (b. 1939). Former U.S. Poet Laureate (2004-2006) and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Kooser is retired from a career in insurance. For most of his life, he has lived in rural Nebraska, writing primarily short, often imagistic poems that focus on ordinary people living on the Great Plains and coping with such mundane tasks as spring plowing, using a hearing aid, or surviving a hot summer night (Flying at Night, 1985). Kooser writes slowly, revises relentlessly, and is always searching for clarity and freshness.

Gary Snyder (b. 1930). Pulitzer Prize winner and ecological conscientiousness leader, Snyder was a college roommate of future Beat poets Lew Welch and Philip Whelan. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, he worked for the United States Forest Service in the headwaters of the Skagit River in the North Cascades Mountains, just east of my family home. It was while a fire lookout on lonely mountaintops that Snyder began to develop his poetic voice. This voice continued to mature during his multifaceted life including stints in a logging camp on an Oregon Indian reservation; as a longshoreman in San Francisco; living with Jack Kerouac; sharing a cottage with Allen Ginsburg; studying Japanese, classical Chinese and Amerindian anthropology at University of California-Berkeley; as deckhand on a fuel freighter in the Pacific; and climbing mountains and studying Zen in Japan.

Although identified with the original San Francisco Beat Poets, Snyder saw “beat” as a state of mind temporarily shared by the group before each of them went their separate ways. In the early sixties, he combined his knowledge of Asian and Amerindian cultures and their traditional relationship with nature with his global experience into a comprehensive worldview: “Humanity is but a part of the fabric of life—dependent on the whole fabric for our very existence.” (“Four Changes” in Turtle Island , 1974) Subsequently, Snyder established the benchmarks for America’s ecological conscientiousness movement and has earned recognition as the foremost ecological poet of the latter twentieth century. He continues to practice sustainable living in the Sierra Nevada foothills and expanding his concepts of ecological conscience to a larger community.

To Snyder, art is the cultivation of dreams and imagination, and poetry is a variety of song expressed in spoken words. He frequently composes without conventional meter or intentional rhyme, time, place, or punctuation. His one-word lines evoke my imagination.

R. S. (Ronald Stuart) Thomas (1913-2000). Anglican priest and Anglo-Welsh poet, Thomas is probably the most dissimilar of the foursome. He was reared, educated, ordained into the Church of Wales, and lived out his career and retirement in Gwynedd, Northwest Wales.

The Welsh and their landscape were Thomas’s life passions. He chose to exemplify his personal philosophy by living an almost monastic existence with his wife and son in a small cabin near Aberdaron.

Thomas’s writing style evolved from lyrical narrations of hillside farmers written in loose traditional forms to more metaphysical subject matter written in freeform. Never nostalgic or romantic, his poetry was a harsh and vivid portrayal of Welsh life as he saw it.

I shall end this two-part essay as I began Part I: My path to poetry has been neither deliberate nor direct. Its wandering may be followed through “A Path Lately Taken,” “My Parents’ Dreams,” “Selected References,” and “Acknowledgements,” all in the back matter of Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009.