Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, by William Stafford
For those who are well-acquainted with the thoughtful and reflective and often deeply straightforward while simultaneously layered poetry of William Stafford , it is little surprise that he was considered to be a poet of sufficient worth to have a glossy best-of collection of poems. And it can be argued by those of us who appreciate his poetry that there were a lot of great poems from the late former poet laureate of Oregon that were not included in this collection. As a writer of somewhere around 28,000 poems and dozens of books and anthologies of poems, the fact that one can have a solid and perhaps eternal argument of his most essential poems is a reflection of the fact that he wrote a lot of crackling good poetry that is worth reading and reflecting upon and remembering, the sort of poetry that is probably taught in good schools to young people filled with the muse of poetry themselves. It would be an honor for any of us who have written poetry to have collections of essential poems, and better yet for those collections to be read and appreciated, since it is said that few people read poems anymore. Without a doubt, William Stafford is worthy of the honor of being read.
The poems included in this anthology include a great many that readers may be familiar with from other works. Included, for example, among the poems in this collection are the title track for Traveling Through The Dark that opens that book as well as such works as “A Story That Could Be True,” “The Way It Is,” “You Reading This, Be Ready,” “A Ritual To Read To Each Other,” “For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid,” “Ceremony,” and “Starting With Little Things.” There are certain themes and moods that are represented over and over again, from the poet’s pacifism and his concern with forgotten aspects of history, including the relationship between white settlers and “indiginous” peoples of the land who themselves were earlier immigrants from Siberia, as well as a lot of writings that deal with creation and family and that muse upon death and memory. There are quite a few poems that I greatly appreciate of Stafford’s that are not included in this anthology, but the poems included here are certainly not clunkers by any rate, as is the case with some best-of collections.
If the poems are often about familiar subjects for poems, though, they are given with a richness of perspective. Stafford is a profoundly thoughtful writer and the complex workings of his mind are visible in the way that he draws deep insights from seemingly mundane matters. Among the more striking ways that the poet uses ordinary observations to draw startling conclusions is in “The Fish Counter At Bonneville,” when he notes the dead fish thanks to the blocking of the Colombia at that place, making a stand against the technologies that harm creation by focusing on the fish and not being too preachy about the politics of such matters as environmentalism as is the way of some. To be sure, the poet is a political radical in many ways, but he goes about his radicalism in a sufficiently subtle way that his perspective does not offend even where one disagrees about his stance on one or another subject. It is that lesson in framing and his attention to life in Oregon that makes this a worthwhile collection even if those who selected these “essential” poems clearly had some political agendas in the material included and the points they were trying to use these poems to make.
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