Poetic contemplation: William Stafford on writing, pursuing your life dreams and accepting your true nature


William Stafford is an American contemporary poet and writer. Born in 1914,  his early teenage and adult years were marked with effort to support  family by doing various seasonal jobs. As the eldest of five children he grew up appreciating books and nature.  He received a BA and an MA from the University of Kansas at Lawrence and, in 1954, a PhD from the University of Iowa.

As a registered pacifist, Stafford worked in camps and projects during the second world war. In 1948 he began to teach at Lewis and Clark College. His first poetry collection was published in his later years (when he was 48) and it won the National Book Award in 1963. For his lifetime he published more than 65 volumes of prose and poetry and won many literary prizes. His poetry at first glance looks simple, yet contains profound truth and revelation, if examined deeper (source)

He truly believed that everyone of us is a writer, a poet at heart, just people lack persistence and vision:

Everyone is born a poet – a person discovering the way words sound and work, caring and delighting in words. I just kept on doing what everyone starts out doing. The real question is: Why did other people stop?”

Writing is constant process of exploration and that’s what constitutes a good writer:

 You don’t need many words if you already know what you’re talking about. A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.”

Every  word has to find its own right time and place and nothing is more powerful than that:

In winter, in the dark hours, when others
were asleep, I found these words and put them
together by their appetites and respect for
each other. In stillness, they jostled. They traded
meaning while pretending to have only one.

Monstrous alliances never dreamed of before
began. Sometimes they last. Never again
do they separate in this world. They die
together. They have a fidelity that no
purpose or pretense can ever break

And all of this happens like magic to the words
in those dark hours when others sleep.

In Stafford’s work we can easily observe entwined topics of self-acceptance and belief in retaining one’s true nature. He writes:

I heard a bird congratulating itself
all day for being a jay.
Nobody cared. But it was glad
all over again, and said so, again.

Too many times we pay more attention on what others have to say about us, than what we think about ourselves. And these words by William Stafford are great reminder:

They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”–
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.

Everyone of us has its own path to follow. Our purpose in life is with our desires, goals and thriving for better to pave that path. Conditions and circumstances might change, but not our attentions, values and desire for contribution – fear should never interrupt the way you lead your life:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

And whenever we have doubts we can return to nature, divine silence that contains all our questions and answers: our task is to search for ones that belong to us:

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

Stafford’s contemplative poetry offers very deep and nurturing outlook on purpose in life. For further examining this topic, you can complement this reading with thoughts from other poets:

Kahlil Gibran’s timeless wisdom on the purpose of poetry and meaning of work

The poetic determination: Ella Wheeler Wilcox on positive thinking and how that impacts success in life

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