The Real Things We Live By

Considering how few specific poems I liked in Traveling Through the Dark, it’s amazing how many I liked in Allegiances. In fact, this is a very different book than Traveling Through the Dark. If Stafford was looking for a particular place in his previous volume, he has now found it, and this volume is populated by the common people who live there. It’s not that there isn’t a sense of place here, there definitely is. However, there seems to be a shift in focus from finding a place to describing the people who live in a place.

Stafford is a remarkable poet who makes unremarkable people, the ones who live right next door, ones with names like “Bess,” the lady down the street who works at the library, seem remarkable. In fact, “common” might well be the most repeated word in this book of poems, for it is the common man, or Everyman, if you prefer, who Stafford seems most concerned with here:


It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any, time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things
we live by.

Far to the north, or indeed in any direction,
strange mountains and creatures have always lurked–
elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders:-we
encounter them in dread and wonder,

But once we have tasted far streams, touched the gold,
found some limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful.

Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
where we are, sturdy for common things.

I like a lot of poems in this short book, but “Allegiances” may well be my favorite because it best captures the essence of the book as a whole.

Stafford appeals to the common man in all of us. This poem is written for those of us who love “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where each of us becomes our own Jimmy Stewart bumbling through life, beloved, despite (or is it because of ?) our all-too-human mistakes, while John Wayne, triumphant, rides off into the sunset alone.

Of course, I doubt it is as easy as it first seems to be a “common one.” To do so, you have to give up dreams of traveling to faraway places or dreams of performing heroic deeds like those in Lord of the Rings, no Miniver Cheevy’s here. Hardest of all, you have to find the “real things,” and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t mean the latest iMac, iPod, or newest version of GoLive.

However, if we are grounded like this, if we can love the “earth and where we are,” we will be able to withstand insanity when it sweeps the land, whether it be cries for revenge or the belief that we can destroy the forces of evil and be TRULY SECURE if only we are willing to spend enough of our Social Security surplus on the military.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the poems in this book is that so many are not about remarkable people; they are about the lives you and I have lived, except seen with greater wisdom and insight than most of us bring to bear on our daily lives.

The following poem reminds me of my own father, the one who trusted me enough with the family car that he never mentioned a “curfew.” Do you think he could possibly not have known that I dragged that car?

Father’s Voice

"No need to get home early;
the car can see in the dark."
He wanted me to be rich
the only way we could,
easy with what we had.

And always that was his gift,
given for me ever since,
easy gift, a wind
that keeps on blowing for flowers
or birds wherever I look.

World, I am your slow guest,
one of the common things
that move in the sun and have
close, reliable friends
in the earth, in the air, in the rock.

Though we were never rich, can anyone be richer than a 16 year-old teenager with a pretty girl sitting next to him driving the family car with ten dollars in his pocket from his paper route, more than enough for a movie and a meal at the drive-in? I’ve never been that rich since. Nor do I expect I ever will be.

Maybe I’ve misspoken, maybe my father, like the father in the poem, taught me how to be rich and easy with what I have. Sometimes I still feel that rich when I’m up high on Mt Hood while others are down below chasing the mighty dollar bill. As long as I have the earth under my feet and the sky above me, I’m certainly as rich as I need to be.

And this book reminds me just how rich I am. Stafford’s celebration of life reminds me why I spend so much time reading poetry. His vision helps transform ordinary lives into extra-ordinary lives, making us happy just to be alive.

“Allegiances” from Another Viewpoint

To whom do we owe our allegiances, our loyalty and devotion?

Because of the word “heroes” in the first line, this poem reminds me of an assignment I once gave to a class. Who is your hero? Simple, even sophomoric, but it was for a sophomore lit class after all. It was also a trick question.

Most of the kids named sports figures, rock stars, or Hollywood leading men and women. I learned more about Michael Jordan than I ever cared to know. A few more thoughtful students–those who probably had me figured out more than I knew, wrote about their fathers and mothers or, joy of joy, a favorite teacher.

When we discussed the topic, I let fly my arrows. Had they named heroes or celebrities? Is a hero always well known? Is a celebrity a hero? What does a hero do? Doesn’t a hero take care of those around him? What has Michael Jordan ever done for you?

I probably convinced very few of the 16 year olds that the common ones among us can be heroes or more specifically worthy of allegiance by our altruism, courage, determination, endurance and support of the common things. It’s “time for us common ones to locate ourselves by the real things we live by,” time for us to stand up, locate our convictions, “get real” as the TV psychologist says. That is how to earn the allegiances of those around us.

But we search for others to pay our allegiances to in all manner of other places. In any direction we search for others to make us shiver, the elves, goblins, trolls, spiders, encountered in dread and wonder. The search changes us and not because we found what we were looking for. I like the line “a season changes” and we come home safe, quiet, grateful.” Anyone who have traveled to a foreign land–and I don’t think the South of France is foreign enough, I’m choosing China–knows the feeling of such a return. We can come home from the journey more respectful of ourselves.

The last stanza troubles me a little. There is no “suppose” about it, an insane wind does often hold the hills, we are surrounded by beliefs that are strange to us–pencil in Taliban here. But we ordinary beings, the non celebrities among us, the moms and dads and teachers who love and work hard for the kids “can’–have the ability to–“cling to the earth and love where we are, sturdy for common things.” Are not those “sturdy for common things” most worthy of our allegiance?

If someone wrote on my epitaph “sturdy for common things” I would rest peacefully.

Diane McCormick

Traveling Through the Dark, Looking for Light

As I researched Robert Bly last week, I discovered Bly was often linked with Oregon poet William Stafford. Thinking back to the few Stafford poems I could remember, I couldn’t see many poetic similarities between them. However, after re-reading two of Stafford’s books, I can certainly see a similarity in their styles, particularly in their sense of place and in their use of “deep imagery,”a technique I often think of as an “emotional collage” of related, though not directly-related, images.

Reading William Stafford’s Traveling Through the Dark turned out to be a rather unusual experience for me, unusual in the sense that I can’t ever remember enjoying a book of poetry as a whole this much without finding a particular poem I really liked.

What I found bothersome in these poems is the same thing I often disliked in Bly’s poems, the “deep imagery" is often difficult or nearly impossible to penetrate. Now “difficult” isn’t necessarily bad. If poetry wasn’t difficult, there would be no need for English teachers – a bad thing, I assure you. Life itself is “difficult” and is particularly “difficult to understand,” otherwise there would be no need for poets, another bad thing. Still, if the connections the poet is trying to make in his poems are too obscure, if the reader is unable to make the connections the poet wants him to make, the poem fails, unless the reader is willing to drag his college professor along behind him like some ball-and-chain his whole life. Few are willing to make such a sacrifice, certainly not I.

What I did identify with in the book, though, is Stafford’s journey through the darkness to discover the “ideal light all around us.” As he writes in the last line in the last line of the poem in the book, “Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.” He does a remarkably good job of explaining for himself, as well as for me, what the world is trying to be.

In “In Response to a Question” Stafford begins, “The earth says have a place, be what that place requires” and ends “draw all into one song, join/ the sparrow on the lawn, and row that easy way,/ the rage without met by the wings/ within that guide you anywhere the wind blows.” This sense of place is what he struggles to find throughout this work, and the song he seeks is the poetry that will celebrate and bring that place to life.

After beginning “Representing Far Places” by describing a “canoe wilderness,” he says later in the poem, “Often in society when the talk turns witty/ you think of that place, and can’t polarize at all:/it would be a kind of treason.” Wittiness is often sarcastic, which requires a sense of alienation or disillusionment. However, his sense of belonging, of being at one with the earth, makes it impossible for him to feel alienated or disillusioned. He ends the poem: “It is all right to be simply the way you have to be, among contradictory ridges in some crescendo of knowing.”

In “Late Thinker” while meditating on lost men, on ghost towns and on those who have abandoned their farms and homes, the poet says he is, “A secret friend of those lands/where certain plants hide in the woods.” Confronted by man’s alienation from the land and from himself, the poet struggles to find an answer to this alienation:

Remembering the wild places, bitter,
where pale fields meet winter,
he searches for some right song
that could catch and then shake the world,
any night by the steady stove.

His song, his verse, if only he can find the right words, will protect him from the “cold,” provide him with the comfort of a “steady stove,” and overcome the growing alienation of man from his world.

“In Dear Detail, by Ideal Light” Stafford seems to finally find the place where he belongs, where “ideal light” surrounds him, dispelling the darkness he has traveled through this entire book.

In Dear Detail, by Ideal Light

Night huddled our town,
plunged from the sky.
You moved away.
I save what I can of the time.

In other towns, calling my name,
home people hale me, dazed;
those moments we hold,
reciting in the evening,

Reciting about you, receding
through the huddle of any new town.
Can we rescue the light that happened,
and keeps on happening, around us?

Gradually we left you there
surrounded by the river curve
and the held-out arms,
elms under the streetlight.

These vision emergencies come
wherever we go –
blind home
coming near at unlikely places.

One’s duty: to find a place
that grows from his part of the world—
it means leaving
certain good people.

Think near High Trail, Colorado,
a wire follows cottonwoods
helping one to know—
like a way on trust.

That lonely strand leaves the road
depending on limbs or little poles,
and slants away,
hunting a ranch in the hills.

There, for the rest of the years,
by not going there, a person could believe
some porch looking south,
and steady in the shade-maybe you,

Rescued by how the hills
happened to arrive where they are,
depending on that wire
going to an imagined place

Where finally the way the world feels
really means how things are,
in dear detail,
by ideal light all around us.

Loren and I taught English together at Prairie High School for 17 years.

I was introduced to Blogging through reading Loren’s web page and, being a retired English teacher, could not help expressing my opinion on some poems. Loren was reading some of his favorite William Stafford poems, so I decided to join him this week. What follows is a personal reaction to two of Stafford’s poems.

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.

“Traveling Through the Dark” illustrates for me the choice to make between being aware or careless about my world and about myself. Professor William Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon, writes to me, “This is where you are. Which road will you take?”

After the first reading, I understand the setting of the dark and narrow road, the dead deer as a symbol of nature ruined by the intrusion of man. I also understand the speaker’s attachment to his car separates him from the natural setting. The car is his companion in the dark. He uses the “glow of the tail-light” as a marker to place himself beside the deer while he investigates. “The car aimed ahead its lowered parking light; under the hood purred the steady engine,” personified light and power come from the man made machine. “I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red.” Earlier, someone had been careless, but now the speaker becomes aware of his place. He hears the wilderness listen.

When I read this for the first time I was reminded of other deer I have seen by the side of the road killed by skiers, fishermen, hunters as they crossed the roads ribboning through the deer’s’ woods.

But I have never done what the speaker does in the poem. I have never stopped to dispose of the deer to prevent making more dead. I haven’t shared his concern and I feel the reproach, enough to make me think I should do better. The subject of the poem becomes more personal–this is not just about the broader subject of nature and the carelessness of man and his technology.

I grow aware of the poem’s meaning for me in the third stanza in the figure of the fawn which waits in the belly of the deer “alive, still, never to be born,” the potential for life destroyed by carelessness. The wilderness listens. What will the speaker do? I think he has a choice. He can make the effort to deliver the fawn, a romantic and no doubt futile diversion for him or he can dispose of the mother’s carcass and be on his way. “I thought hard for us all–my only swerving–” He is pondering his choice for everyone, not just for himself. Is his “only swerving” a criticism that he represents too few of us who would stop to think, to concern ourselves about death and the dying of potential? About our greedy presence on earth? Is that one of the things wrong with our world?

I begin to recognize the personal message. The speaker is asking me how many times have I recognized my potential for life, achievement, happiness , and after thinking hard, carelessly let it die unborn, pushed aside because making the effort to bring life to my dreams seems too romantic and could lead to failure? That is the sense of the poem that takes me to the world beyond his words that demands I reevaluate my activities and choose the productive though more difficult ones. The speaker is asking me to be aware, recognize and nurture my potential, not to push it over the edge into the river.

Awareness of one’s place and potential won’t automatically lead to doing good, but it’s a start.

My copy of this poem I have reset in larger type, losing the original and the proper line lengths. Forgive me.


You will never be alone,
you hear so deep a sound when autumn comes.
Yellow pulls across the hills and thrums,
or the silence after lightning before it says its names
–and then the clouds’ wide mouthed apologies.
You were aimed from birth: you will never be alone.
Rain will come, a gutter filled, an Amazon, long aisles
–you never heard so deep a sound, moss on rock, and years.
You turn your head–that’s what the silence meant:
You’re not alone.
The whole wide world pours down.

Even at the age of 62 I felt abandoned when my mother died. I heard this poem read shortly after my mother died and spent an hour in the library searching for it because it is such a comfort to me. I have it printed on a piece of paper in 18 point type.

To begin, all the senses are aroused by the reference to color and sounds, the imagery of lightning, “the clouds’ wide mouthed apologies” to emphasize we are connected by senses to our world. And then the line with the greatest comfort. “You were aimed from birth: you will never be alone.” On the trajectory I see all my grandparents, my aunts who lived before me and all my children and grandchildren who will live after me, a continuum of life. My place in the present is supported by the past and by the future. I am truly not alone. We are like the rain that begins as individual drops which fill a gutter then a river. The sound is so deep, the “moss on rock, and the years.”

So that is what the silence means. That’s what not hearing anymore someone who spent 62 years of her life nurturing, cajoling, praising, advising, most of all loving me beyond all reason means. It is so deep a sound. I’m not alone. I’m part of the whole wide world, the autumn, the hills, the lightning, the wide mouthed cloud, rain, moss, rocks, time, grandmothers, and grandfathers, my mother. ‘The whole wide world pours down.” I am encircled. I am not alone.

Diane McCormick