Before tonight, outgoing Oregon poet laureate Paulann Peterson had visited all but one county in official functions. The county that she was missing was Columbia County, and tonight she happened to visit the St. Helens library in one of her last official functions before a new poet laureate is named. As it happened, I was there with a friend of mine, who shares a mutual appreciation for poetry. The lecture itself was about an hour long, and it mixed thoughtful comments said slowly from the speaker along with her own poets as well as the poets of one William Stafford, who was a previous poet laureate of Oregon, and whose centennial is this year (he was born in January of 1914).
I must say that I found the life and poetry of William Stafford to be very intriguing on a lot of grounds. Stafford was a peaceful man who worked for years during World War II in a labor camp as a pacifist. While I have never done such a thing, my father’s college education was interrupted during the Vietnam War by his own status as a conscientious objector. As it happens, there is a movie showing at the St. Helens library in a little more than three weeks about the anti-war behavior of William Stafford. Although it was certainly not a popular thing to be a pacifist and to pay the price in labor during a “good war,” Stafford managed to oppose warfare without being insufferably self-righteous about it, a lesson that those of us who despise the ways of violence would be good to emulate, without ever losing our sense of biting irony.
One of the poems that the poetess read that was particularly poignant was a poem called, “A Story That Could Be True,” which reads:
If you were exchanged in the cradle and
Your real mother died
Without ever telling the story
Then no one knows your name,
And somewhere in the world
Your father is lost and needs you
But you are far away.
He can never find
How true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
And the robberies of the rain
You stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by—
You wonder at their calm.
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.”
Poetry is one of those activities that are not widely appreciated, but I can remember that my appreciation with poetry had an early origin. As has often been the case in my life, those early habits have been very enduring, as I am not so different as I was when I was young. I early appreciated the poetry of songs, as well as in the book of Psalms, and those interests have never left me, nor ceased to inform my ear and my choice of words for aural qualities. Like many children, I read volumes of poetry by Shel Silverstein like “Where The Sidewalk Ends,” but fairly early on I started writing poetry as well, a habit that has never entirely left me as well . Where poetry can succeed and endure is in its way of taking complicated ideas and putting them in simple, and moving terms that are memorable, which makes sense given that poetry has always been a way for words to be remembered.
This world is full of coldness and ugliness, but so long as we have poetry inside of us, we can turn the sewers of life that we face into beauty. The blood of our struggles and our warfare can become the fertilizer for the poppies of Flanders Field. Through our words we tell stories that could be true, and in creating art we also help to form our own character. Through our deeds we help to form our character, and our deeds help demonstrate our character and what we aspire to be as well as what we struggle against. Yet even in the midst of the ugliness of the world, we wonder to ourselves if we might be kings and queens, in the knowledge that a glorious place would make everything that we must endure worthwhile. For if we have a great worth, then our lives are worth living, no matter how difficult they may sometimes be.