william stafford | purifying the language of the tribe

1 07 2012

Man and Woman by Edvard Munch

POETRY DISPATCH No. 377 | July 1, 2012



Walking away means



Pointing a knife at your stomach means

“Please don’t say that again.”


Leaning toward you means

“I love you.”


Raising a finger means

“I enthusiastically agree.”


“Maybe” means



“Yes” means



Looking like this at you means

“You had your chance.”


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…

markowski | stafford | sandburg | three poems on july 4th

4 07 2008

Poetry Dispatch No. 246 | July 4, 2008

Three Poems on July 4th

independence day
the dulled point
grandpa’s foxhole shovel

-by Ed Markowski

Allegiances by William Stafford

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.

Fourth of July Night by Carl Sandburg

The little boat at anchor in black water sat murmuring to the tall black sky
A white sky bomb fizzed on a black line.
A rocket hissed it’s red signature into the west.
Now a shower of Chinese fire alphabets,
A cry of flower pots broken in flames,
A long curve to a purple spray, three violet balloons—
Drips of seaweed tangled in gold, shimmering symbols of mixed numbers,
Tremulous arrangements of cream gold folds of a bride’s wedding gown—
A few sky bombs spoke their pieces, then velvet dark.
The little boat at anchor in black water sat murmuring to the tall black sky.

william stafford | what’s in my journal

3 12 2007


Poetry Dispatch No.159 | March 15, 2007

I’m always dismayed when beginning writers decide to take a class on “Journaling.” (A term I hate almost as much as “blogging.”) I’m even more dismayed, when accomplished writers in a workshop situation spend more than a half hour on the matter— even worse, attempt to teach a complete course on the journal or notebook.

To me, “How to Write a Journal” is akin to “How to Walk.”

“Born writers” (and artists) instinctively move toward recording impressions and ideas they sense will be of future importance in their work. They are either forever looking for scraps of paper and a pencil/pen to ‘take note’ or religiously carry with them (in pockets, purses, portfolios, glove compartments, etc.) the tools of their trade to mark the moment in a meaningful way.

No one should have to be taught how to do this or told what to record.

The real writer just knows. Norbert Blei


What’s in My Journal by William Stafford

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can’t find them. Someone’s terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.

from Crossing Unmarked Snow, University of Michigan Press