The poet William Stafford’s 100th birthday would have been yesterday, January 17. His centennial is being celebrated through the year across Oregon and around the world. I attended the kick-off event today. His son Kim spoke for about his father, read some of his work, and generously shared what seemed to motivate his father’s life and his art. For me, it was confirmation of poetry being a discipline, a habit to be cultivated, not inspiration teased out from a mischievous muse. Above all, it was a call to believe in your own work.
Here are my notes about William Stafford’s daily writing practice:
Rise at 4:00 am. This was a practice that began in conscientious objector’s camp during World War Two. The COs did manual labor during the day but decided to have a university before going to work. They all rose at four and those with training taught others about the subjects they knew — philosophy, music, painting, science. After the war he continued the practice with his writing.
Go for a walk or a run. Lie down. “My poems are happy because I am comfortable,” he said.
Write the date at the top of the page. “Then I know I’m going.”
Write anything ordinary, daily events, random thoughts.
“When in doubt or blocked, lower your standards and keep going.”
Write an aphorism. Examples:
“From high cliffs it is courtesy to let others go first.”
“You be the dog, I’ll be Pavlov.”
Then write something that is sort if like a poem. He wrote stuff I would never write, said Kim. Very ordinary. Boring. “If I don’t welcome all my ideas, soon even the bad ones won’t come,” he said.
Weekly he typed up about one of eight of the pages he wrote and submitted them to different publications. Once he had faith in a poem he sent it off and often they would get rejected over and over, sometimes continuously over a span of twenty years! “Traveling Through the Dark” (my favorite of all his poems) was rejected nine times. I have seen the original — he kept records on the original of the rejections. I told Kim afterwards how impressed I was with this, since the poem strikes me every time I read it. He said, “yeah you really have to believe in what you’re doing.”
William Stafford wrote 22,000 of these daily pages. That is an average of a page a day for sixty years. From these pages he culled and published sixty books, won the National Book Award, became poet laureate and one of the most loved American writers of the twentieth century. Here is Traveling Through the Dark.
Traveling Through the Dark.
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason–
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all–my only swerving–,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.