James Stockdale, the longest held American prisoner of war in Vietnam, said the love of poetry was an important quality for enduring the unendurable. “You thirst to remember, the clutter of all the trivia evaporates and with care you make deep excursions into past recollections. Verses were hoarded and gone over each day. The person who had memorized a lot of poetry was the bearer of great gifts.”
“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives… A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. “
Goodbye you crazy good writer. Goodbye you purveyor of geek love, you hunter of living gargoyles, you lover of boxing as it should be and connoisseur of life in all its tawdry finery. We will miss you writing sentences that spin the head around.
In 1992, shortly before his death, William Stafford was commissioned by the State of Washington to provide seven poems to be installed on plaques alongside the Methow river, one of the most beautiful rivers in all of the Pacific Northwest. Ask Me was installed along the river in the town of Winthrop. I can go only so long in my life without reading it. It is one of my anchor and lifeline poems and it belongs along that river the same way Tibetan Buddhist paintings belong on the stone canyon walls of Nepal.
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
The author Cheryl Strayed says in a recent essay you must be a “warrior and a motherfucker” when it comes to being brave and resilient in your writing. I don’t believe this is enough. You must become a mental strip artist, an artisan for the broken, a pub singer of the damned, a babysitter of lost ideas, a window cleaner in a shit storm, a pole dancer in a literary hurricane, a taxi driver for the faintest of whims, a rambler through cemeteries, a curdler of fermented ideas, a rodeo clown at a funeral and a parade street sweeper of bullshit.
A writer must be able to ask the question: if in Alexandria in 275 BC, a 180 foot long gold-plated phallus was paraded through the streets of the city, flanked by elephants, a giraffe, a rhinoceros and decorated with ribbons and a gold star (according to Athenaeus,) where did they put the damned star?
Assembling a poem letter by letter in lead type to print on handmade paper is an act of sexual reproduction. Each letter comes from a worn wooden tray,a snippet of the tribe’s DNA code, facile in the hand, expectant.
Words reassemble themselves, replicating their ancient legacy,
ready to construct a new being. The hive mind provides the creative spark. Old stories recombine, sprout new green feathers and take wing.
You can feel the deep joy of nature in it. A happy parent now steps aside knowing the power and the limits of his role.