Mystical jolt

Young poets gather to learn the craft from literary stars.
By Robert Hirschfield | Published: March 21, 2014


Writing a poem is easy, like swimming into a fish trap.
Analyzing a poem is hard, like swimming out of a fish trap.
—From “You Must Revise Your Life” by William Stafford

There are no fish traps anywhere near Poets House, a literary center and poetry library in Lower Manhattan. On a Saturday morning, with the snow falling softly on the Hudson River, I sat in a circle with a poetry writing group that included Kim Stafford (son of William Stafford), the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, 20 teenage girls (no boys signed up) and the works of the elder Stafford, one of America’s great poets, dead since 1993, but on that day very much alive in spirit and words.

Nye first read Stafford on the back pages of her high-school English textbook in San Antonio and experienced a mystical jolt. “His poems glistened with clarity, warmth and longing,” she said. “I felt changed by them. So changed I felt I could see through the wall into the next classroom.”

Some of the girls, in their sweaters and jeans, with their pads and papers, leaned toward the 61-year-old poet in subtle movements of connection and closeness. Only a few of them had read Stafford before. They had come to be guided into his work as a way of deepening their own poetry.

When I was in my teens, I picked up a book by Robert Frost, and I remember feeling the Nye-like jolt, but I had no teacher or interested party to connect it with. It was many years before I held another book of poetry in my hands. The girls at the Poets House were receiving the type of guidance that can nurture a lifetime of reading and writing habits.

Nye read “Any Morning,” a Stafford poem that is quiet and undramatic – typical Stafford – but not particularly galvanizing.

Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it
has so much to do in the world.

Lines like quiet taps on the shoulder by an unmet friend. One student whose course work included many poems that were lavishly philosophical or abstract said of Stafford, “He teaches us that it’s OK to be simple, and to use simple words to tell a story.”

Kim Stafford told the story of his father reading at an event at which a man found a poem too simple. “I could have written that,” he said. William Stafford replied, “But you didn’t. But you could write your own poem.” To which his son added, “That’s our theme for today.”

The autonomy of the human experience turned into art is a key Stafford teaching. His phrase, “I don’t want to write good poems. I want to write inevitable poems,” is one his son repeated to the youngsters in the morning and again to an older crowd of poets in the afternoon. It is no less true for one than the other.

Stafford also said: “The research for what you are writing is your whole life.”

“Think of the freedom it gives you,” Nye said, “if you can say to yourself, ‘Maybe what I have written today is messy, clumsy, raggedy, but that’s my poem for today.’ Maybe there is a neater poem buried inside it that I can work on tomorrow.”

The fledgling poets got to work.

Kim Stafford, it turns out, almost never saw his father write anything.

“He would get up at three or four in the morning, go for a jaunt and write,” Stafford said. “By the time we got up, he was in a great mood because he had already done his most important work of the day. He would write a poem every day. Sometimes he would write down phrases that he never used in his work, like ‘every war has two losers,’ which we used long after his death as a title for a book of his writings on peace and finding common ground. When you write something down in your writing time, you have no idea what it may become, what it may do.”

Nye returned to the penultimate line of “Any Morning: Later in the Day You Act Like the Others.” “What you do later in the day, people may know about or not. Your writing time is yours alone.”

I know the Stafford poem “Traveling through the Dark” in the way you know what haunts you and moves you and won’t let go of you. But I didn’t know the story behind it until Kim Stafford talked about what it means to create, to be challenged, to believe in yourself as a poet in the teeth of disbelief.

It begins with the famous lines:

Traveling through the dark I found a
deer dead on the edge of the Wilson River Road.

It closes with the even more famous lines:

I thought hard for us all ‒ my only swerving ‒ ,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

“He took that poem to his writing group, and they were unanimous,” Stafford said. “‘You can’t end a poem like that. It’s too mean.’ My father felt in his heart: ‘I am not changing it.’”

Seventeen magazines rejected it before Hudson Review accepted it. It went on to be the title of his book that won the 1963 National Book Award, beating out works by Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams.

Several of the girls in the group mentioned that poem to me later. Most spoke of the poet’s integrity, but one girl spoke of the poem itself.

“I found it very thought-provoking,” she said. “First, it seems like just a tragedy, but then you realize there is also kindness involved, and mystery, a man doing what needs to be done, not turning away from it just because it’s hard.”

I thought of the great poets I heard read in that very same hall: M.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, Philip Levine, Jane Hirshfield. I thought of this girl as a wonderful, unselfconscious seed in their orchard.

Robert Hirschfield is a freelance writer and poet in New York.