18 April 2008
Poem Of the Last Two Decades
It's been a long time coming but I finally tracked down and purchased the small collection of William Stafford poems titled Things That Happen Where There Aren't Any People that contains my favorite poem of the same name. I first came across this poem in an undergraduate English class at the University of Utah sometime either 1989 or 1990. While I haven't been on a constant search for it the words burrowed themselves into my memory and have remained a significant source of inspiration ever since.
I don't know exactly when the poem was first published but the book includes poems that range in date from 1959 to 1980.
William Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas in 1914 and died at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon in 1993. In 1941 he was drafted into the United States Army but, as a registered pacifist, was sent to work on domestic projects with other conscientious objectors. He spent from 1942 to 1946 in work camps in the forests of Arkansas, Illinois, and California fighting wildfires, as a soil conservationist, and on various trail crews.
Stafford's 1947 master's thesis was a collection of memoirs about his time spent as a conscientious objector titled Down In My Heart. In 1948 he accepted a teaching position at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon where he remained until retirement. His most famous poem, Traveling Through Dark, won him the National Book Award in 1963. He was forty-eight years old. Though he started publishing his poems only later in his life he was quite prolific and compiled some fifty-seven volumes of poetry.
I'm no poet and I'm certainly not going to try to interpret it as I did some seventeen or eighteen years ago. Instead, I'll simply post the poem so that if, by chance, some other wanderer finds him- or herself searching for something that gives their life meaning here, at least, is one possibility.
Things That Happen Where There Aren't Any People
It's cold on Lakeside Road
with no one traveling. At its turn
on the hill an old sign sags and
finally goes down. The traveler rain
walks back and forth over its victim
flat on the mud.
You don't have to have any people when
sunlight stands on the rocks or gloom
comes following the great dragged clouds
over a huddle of hills. Plenty of
things happen in deserted places, maybe
dust counting millions of its little worlds
or the slow arrival of deep dark.
And out there in the country a rock has been
waiting to be mentioned for thousands of years.
Every day its shadow leans, crouches,
then walks away eastward in one measured stride
exactly right for its way of being. To reach
for that rock we have the same reasons
that explorers always have for their journeys:
because it is far, because there aren't any people.
And to add to the vast, beautiful, but stark landscapes created by William Stafford here is a piece of music perfect for an accompaniment while reading the poem. Mick Turner is a painter and one half of The Tren Brothers, who (including drummer Jim White) are exactly two thirds of the Dirty Three. Most of the music that floats out of any combination of these three people is poem worthy. This track is taken from the recent Mick Turner/Tren Brothers compilation Blue Trees. Listen to it while reading along for a sublime experience.
Tren Brothers: Swing Pt. 1.mp3
Then go support the troops:
William Stafford Memorial Page at Graywolf Press
Friends of William Stafford
William Stafford books at Amazon and ABE Books
Mick Turner and the Tren Brothers at Amazon