Book Review: Learning To Live In The World

Learning To Live In The World:  Earth Poems, by William Stafford

As someone who greatly enjoys reading the books of William Stafford, the late poet laureate of Oregon [1], I am intrigued at the use to which his poems have been put in the years after his death.  Stafford was such a prolific writer that not only did he write books for major publishers but he also wrote smaller print-run books with smaller, even local, publishers, and write poems for other magazines and anthologies, and wrote at least a poem every day in his early morning writing, such that it has been judged a sisyphean task to know exactly how much he wrote.  One of the consequences of this is that his poems are anthologized in many posthumous “best of” collections that are divided by topic so that one can see the peace activist poetry or, in this case, earth poems that reflect Stafford’s interest in creation.  Reading this book and others like it is a reminder that poems can take on a different context based on the other poems around them.  This is a good thing as it makes the layers of poems, especially poems that are as deceptively simple as Stafford’s, all the more deeply resonant.

This short book of about sixty pages is divided into five sections.  After an introduction that discusses Stafford’s prolific writing habits, the five short sections of short poems are titled thusly:  “The World Speaks Everything To Us,” “Even Far Things Are Real,” “It Might Go Wild, Any Time,” “I See The Darkness; It Comes Near,” and “You Live By The Light You Find.”  After this there is a short epilogue and an index of poem titles as well as first lines to make the poems easy to find.  The poems are a mix of ones that are very familiar to me because they are frequently anthologized.  Other poems, like the following beautiful one, were new to me but no less lovely for that, and a reminder that Stafford’s oeuvre contains a great deal of mysterious and unknown poems that have not yet been brought into the light for many of his potential readers:


Animals full of light
walk through the forest
toward someone aiming a gun
loaded with darkness.

That’s the world: God
holding still
letting it happen again,
and again and again.

Obviously, those reading this book are likely to be fans of William Stafford.  This particular collection of books was published on the 75th anniversary of its mainstream publisher, and the book was likely well-received, at least as well received as poetry books are.  This is an worthwhile compilation that has something old and something new for many readers.  Given William Stafford’s tendency to frequently reflection on creation, man’s place in it, and the place between people and other people and people and other beings, these poems prompt the reader to engage in reflection as well.  Perhaps we take it for granted that plants and animals seem to instinctively know how to live in the world, but human beings have to be taught and have to learn the same thing.  There is something gained, though, in not doing things automatically, and that is being able to reflect on them because one knows such matters to be contingent and not automatic.  It is in that reflection on our choices, about which these poems reflect often, that allows us to make good ones instead of bad ones, or to improve in the quality of our choices as we reflect on that awkward combination of connectedness and isolation that we feel in our lives with other people and with the wider world around us.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s