My Name Is William Tell, by William Stafford
One might think with the title like this, this prize-winning book of poetry, which won the Western States Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry in 1992, the tongue is being lodged firmly in cheek. After all, William Stafford  was a noted pacifist who paid for his convictions with years in what amounted to prison labor in a CO camp. Yet this book shows Stafford at his most fiery, largely because he appears to have taken offense at being considered a regional poet. True, William Stafford acquired his reputation as a poet after moving to Oregon and was long the state’s poet laureate and a teacher at William & Clark College. Yet Stafford’s poetry has always been more than merely Oregonian in nature, not least because so much of his poetry finds him reflecting on his prairie upbringing in Kansas as well as various musings from his travels to many other places, some of which are very much in evidence in this particular volume. Yet while grousing about the critics who labeled him as a regional poet, he also points out that poetic inspiration comes from whatever is close to us, and wherever we happen to be, that will be our region.
In this short book of around 80 pages published by a small regional publisher, the author begins with a short poem that expresses his irritation and the slings and arrows of critics and makes the above noted grousing about being labeled as a regional poet. After this the book is divided into four parts: “Doing My Job,” “Dreams Of Childhood,” “Our Town Owned A Story,” and “Crossing The Campus.” As might be imagined for beginning in such a pugnacious fashion, this book of poetry has a great deal of interest. We may note, for example, that included among the poems here is a reference to the noted Northwest regional poet Richard Hugo, along with a few works that reflect the author’s cosmopolitan interests like the paintings at Lascaux in France, animals like the quail, and even a melancholy ode to youth in reflecting on a young business traveler in an airport. Some of the poems reflect college, some of them the author’s own anti-war stance like a poem dedicated to a .38, and plenty of poems reflect the author’s usual interests in memory, family, and creation, as well as communication. Stafford seems to be both relishing as well as bristling at being labeled and put into a box as a poet.
Indeed, this book of poetry finds William Stafford in a strange place. One might think that age would mellow people, yet this book is among the least mellow of Stafford’s books. Was Stafford upset about the way that war had been made to look like a video game in the Gulf War, where death came from above where those who delivered it were relatively safe from harm while pressing buttons that would level those miles below? Did Stafford get a bit more sensitive and a bit more grouchy in his old age in contrast to those who mellow out? Had the losses and difficulties of life made Stafford a bit more bothered by the problems that he saw would remain long after he was gone and that he may have hoped to do something about? It is hard to say. It is easy to speculate about where someone’s heart and mind were in the face of life’s troubles and discouragements, but as someone whose writing has long reflected my own intense personal concerns, it is easy to wonder where someone is while they are creating writing like this. Being William Tell is no laughing matter, after all.
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