william stafford | the darkness around us is deep

27 04 2010

PoetryDispatch No. 320 | April 27, 2010


Editor’s Note: I suspect many of us are guilty of not having read deep enough (or at all) certain poets we’ve been aware of for years, but for whatever reason, never got around to devoting any serious time to.

I admit to having somewhat of a ho-hum relationship in regard to William Stafford. He never quite spoke to me, got under my skin. When one considers all the other poets out there it’s difficult enough to keep up, let alone look back.

I met Stafford once at a Rural Writers Festival in Minnesota, back in the 80’s, I believe, thanks to my publisher, David Pichaske of Ellis Press who saw to it that I be included the program. Stafford was only one of an impressive gathering of well known writers, among them Robert Bly, a close friend of his.

I remember standing on the back porch of some house with Stafford, late afternoon, drink in hand, overlooking the flatlands of Minnesota, quietly taking it all in…exchanging a little conversation. I remember his white hair. His rather flushed face, his slow talk. But I can’t remember a single thing we discussed. Nor did I record any of this in a notebook.

I didn’t own a single book of his at the time. I wasn’t aware of a single poem of his that one could say was “a Stafford poem.” He was just ‘an old poet’ that I was happy enough to meet, spend time with talking about nothing in particular except the wide open landscape of southwestern Minnesota.

Through the years, I picked up a few used copies of his books, put them on my poetry shelves…referenced at least one of them once, looking for a line attributed to him—which I never found.

Then the other night… Well, you know how some writers, some books just beckon you from the dark, call upon you to take them down from the shelf, open them to what it is they think you need to know at this stage in your life?

If you wait around long enough, the right words inevitably find you.

Stafford quietly entered the room, saw to it that I was comfortable in the quiet of my reading chair…opened the book to these pages, these incredible poems, which came over me like prayers in this time of my life…which I have been trying to put to memory ever since. —Norbert Blei


“The broken part heals even stronger than
the rest,”
they say. But that takes awhile.
And, “Hurry up,” the whole world says.
They tap their feet. And it still hurts on rainy
afternoons when the same absent sun
gives no sign it will ever come back.

“What difference in a hundred years?”
The barn where Agnes hanged her child
will fall by then, and the scrawled words
erase themselves on the floor where rats’ feet
run. Boards curl up. Whole new trees
drink what the rivers bring. Things die.

“No good thing is easy.” They told us that,
while we dug our fingers into the stones
and looked beseechingly into their eyes.
They say the hurt is good for you. It makes
what comes later a gift all the more
precious in your bleeding hands.


The light by the barn that shines all night
pales at dawn when a little breeze comes.

A little breeze comes breathing the fields
from their sleep and waking the slow windmill.

The slow windmill sings the long day
about anguish and loss to the chickens at work.

The little breeze follows the slow windmill
and the chickens at work till the sun goes

Then the light by the barn again.


Most mornings I get away, slip out
the door before light, set forth on the dim gray
road, letting my feet find a cadence
that softly carries me on. Nobody
is up—all alone my journey begins.

Some days it’s escape: the city is burning
behind me, cars have stalled in their tracks,
and everybody is fleeing like me but some other
My stride is for life, a far place.

Other days it is hunting: maybe some game will
cross my path
and my stride will follow for hours,
all turns. My breathing has caught the right beat
for endurance; familiar trancelike scenes glide

And sometimes it’s a dream of motion,
streetlights coming near,
passing, shadows that lean before me,
then fading, and a sound from a tree: a soul, or
an owl.

These journeys are quiet, They mark my days with
too precious for anyone else to share, little gems
of darkness, the world going by, and my breath
and the road.


When there was air, when you could
breathe any day if you liked, and if you
wanted to you could run. I used to
climb those hills back of town and
follow a gully so my eyes were at ground
level and could look out through grass as the
bent in their tensile way, and see snow
mountains follow along, the way distance goes.

Now I carry those days in a tiny box
wherever I go, I open the lid like this
and let the light glimpse and then glance away.
There is a sigh like my breath when I do this.
Some days I do this again and again.


Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done in my life. Others
have come 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.

[from THE DARKNESS AROUND US IS DEEP, Selected Poems of William Stafford, edited and with an Introduction by Robert Bly, Harper Perennial, 1993]

Much more on William Stafford can be found by clicking here…



8 responses

27 04 2010
Gina Mannella

Norbert, you are so right in your observations here. It also applies to poets that we have read and loved, but for some reason, haven’t read in quite a while. For no real reason, some writers just recede in my mind and are neglected for a while. Or a poet whose first one or two or five or six poems I read years ago didn’t grab me so I shut the door. Thanks.

27 04 2010
Eric Chaet

I met him once. He was exceptional. Strong enough to be completely kind & open, to enjoy you, no performance required—like a couple of kids who like the opportunity of being with one another—presumably unless you gave him reason to stop being so. He wasn’t needy, & wasn’t proving anything, either. Not many I’ve met get so far along in life, & manage to be so. The wealth he had was real.

28 04 2010
Ralph Murre

Thanks, Norb, for this glimpse into Stafford’s dark, and this reminder to take him from the shelf. I, too, have long long been aware of his presence and prominence, and woefully UNaware of most of his poetry.

28 04 2010
Jon Wolston


29 04 2010
Mike Koehler

Norb, at a time when things are so screwed up, you throw a Stafford life line. Yes, no or maybe. Our answers should be clear… a challenge every poet must face sooner or later.
If I could only own one book it would be his Stories That Could Be True. Thanks
old Coyote, howling not just news of the day but against the darkness, which is indeed, deep.

1 09 2010
Haydn Reiss

Since you are an admirer of Bill Stafford, check out my new film, “Every War Has Two Losers”, based on Bill’s journals and centered on his poems and thoughts connected to his life as a conscientious objector. http://www.everywar.com The dvd also includes my first film, the 1994 “William Stafford & Robert Bly: A Literary Friendship”. I’d appreciate help in spreading the word. Thanks! Haydn Reiss

15 12 2010

One of my favourites:

To My Young Friends Who Are Afraid

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot–air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there.

William Stafford

10 05 2012
Radically Accessible Poetry | Dactyls & Drakes

[…] took this image from The Poetry Dispatch blog entry on William Stafford. You can see a few more of his radically accessible poems […]

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