I’m almost ashamed to admit it that for years William Stafford has been little more than a familiar name. Sure I knew he was a pretty influential poet of the Pacific Northwest and that he had served as Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, but I finally brought home, An Orgeon Message from the library and just as I was completely engaged and blown away by the work of Theodore Roethke (see the Copper Canyon Press re-issue of Straw for the Fire) I’ve been inspired to read a biography and dive deeper into the world of Stafford. Here’s a few that I thought particularly interesting due to their library connotations and the attack on ignorance and books not written.
Two Poems from An Oregon Message: Poems
By William Stafford
Burning a Book
Protecting each other, right in the center
a few pages glow a long time.
The cover goes first, then outer leaves
curling away, then spine and a scattering.
Truth, brittle and faint, burns easily,
its fire as hot as the fire lies make-
flame doesn’t care. You can usually find
a few charred words in the ashes.
And some books ought to burn, trying for character
but just faking it. More disturbing
than book ashes whole libraries that no one
got around to writing- desolate
towns, miles of unthought-in cities,
and the terrorized countryside where wild dogs
own anything that moves. If a book
isn’t written, no one needs to burn it-
ignorance can dance in the absence of fire.
So I’ve burned books. And there are many
I haven’t even written, and nobody has.
The Book About You
The book that tells about you slumps in the library
Somewhere in the medical section. It is vague at first
but then detailed: you are hopeless and not even interesting.
Cases like yours routine through hospitals, especially
in slum districts. By the end of the book, you are dead
one-third of the time but live a useful life
occasionally if treated early. One patient
in Calcutta lived fifteen years. Softly you close
the book and push back. You walk past the travel section
and the mysteries and romances. At the door you turn for a glance:
they have established a new shelf- pay books. The librarian
is watching you. You spread your hands, go out
the quiet door, and stand there enjoying the sun.
There are days like this for everyone. Somebody else
Will put the book back. Strangely- one of the symptoms?-
you feel like singing.