Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford
Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford
William Stafford
Graywolf Press, 2014
128 pp., $16.00

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Michael Robbins

Poems for Inspirational Posters

A William Stafford centennial volume.

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"I know of no other twentieth-century American writer as much admired and respected as William Stafford," avers Ted Kooser on the front cover of this slim volume. I'm somewhat alarmed to learn that Kooser, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, does not know of T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Wallace Stevens, Henry James, Ezra Pound, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and a hundred others, but on the bright side he has a lot of great reading to look forward to.

If I sound a bit testy, it's because Kooser's talking about a poet who defined poetry, in his aptly-titled poem "Poetry," as "a flower in the parking lot / of The Pentagon." I mean, why not just define it as a rainbow and have done with it?

This sentimental floriculture can't be dismissed as a rare lapse—a hundred flowers bloom in the bad parking lots of Stafford's poems. Perhaps this explains his popularity during his lifetime, extraordinary for such a minor poet. He won the National Book Award for Traveling through the Dark, whose title poem could be found in any anthology when I was in high school and college. It's one of his more successful numbers, about finding a dead deer on a mountain road. "It is usually best to roll them into the canyon: / that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead." The deer, he discovers, is pregnant, its fawn still alive. He hesitates, then pushes the body with its cargo "over the edge into the river."

If only he had done the same with more of his poems. The editor of Ask Me, Stafford's son Kim, informs us in his introduction that Stafford composed more than twenty thousand poems. This is, by a couple orders of magnitude, too many. "By comparison," noted William Logan in his review for Poetry, "Eliot wrote about 70 poems." Stafford was a kind and humble man, and his better poems are nervily plain-spoken, like Frost without the frostiness. If he had concentrated his gifts into a few hundred poems, we might have more lines like the opening tercet of "One Home":

Mine was a Midwest home—you can keep your world.
Plain black hats rode the thoughts that made our code.
We sang hymns in the house; the roof was near God.

This makes a virtue of its clichés, capturing something of the original force of Puritanism. The slant rhymes reinforce the semantic linkage of world-code-God, an idealized organic whole reinvigorated by the snapping terseness of the lines, each word a single syllable except for the name of the locale in which the other words find a home.

But elsewhere terseness turns to laxity. There's a Thomas Kinkade quality to Stafford's many mawkish poems, which can recall inspirational posters: "Like a child again, you breathe on the world, and it shines." "The world" shows up a lot. "It's our only friend," and yesterday "the sun came, / Why, / It came." And it'll come out tomorrow, too, you can bet your bottom dollar.

Kim Stafford tells a revealing anecdote about one of his father's readings. "I could have written that," an audience member said after hearing a poem. "But you didn't," Stafford responded. "But you could write your own." This moves Stafford the younger to rhapsodize: "You could write your own. What a democratic idea. Each of us could write our own poem, our own proposal for peace, our own aphoristic meditation … our own consolation, manifesto, blessing."

Let's not and say we did. This spirit infuses Stafford's poetry, softening the hard particulars required by perception and discrimination, forever informing "the world" about "freedom" and "poetry" and "wisdom" and "peace." He praises what "makes us alike, all offspring of powerful / forces, part of one great embrace of democracy, / united across every boundary." This is like "We Are the World" without the music, without the singular voices of Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.

Surely the truly democratic idea is one that recognizes that each of us could not, in fact, write our own poem—that calls for an egalitarian distribution not of poetic gifts (which remain stubbornly anti-democratic) but of the ability to appreciate them when they appear in others. "The darkness around us is deep," Stafford wrote, and it surely is. All the more reason to insist upon nuance and precision, to bring forth, as Whitman put it, "retrievements out of the night."

Michael Robbins is the author of two collections of poetry: Alien vs. Predator (Penguin) and The Second Sex (just published by Penguin). He teaches creative writing at Montclair State University.

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