The Darkness Around Us Is Deep, by William Stafford
When one has read as many books by William Stafford as I have , you get a sense for the most important elements of his work to those who make compilations. One knows that one is going to get a selection of good poems that is nonetheless varied in terms of its register and subject matter, but there will be some consistent perspectives and subjects that will appear over and over again. Moreover, when one has read as many compilations of Stafford’s poems, one has a sense of something that is somewhat important, and that is a growing consensus within the publishing community about the essential poems of William Stafford that are part of the poetry canon. Now, this will not matter to a lot of readers who may only read the various “best of” compilations and see many of the same poems over and over again, because such readers do not know the context of Stafford’s work as a whole. But as someone who has read a substantial portion of the books published by the poet during his life time (as well as those which were posthumously published), the wider scope of works that are often selected makes the fact that certain poems are chosen over and over again pretty notable, especially because there are some poems rarely chosen if at all for anthologies that are just as good as the ones that are chosen over and over again.
This particular selection of poetry begins with an introduction by the poet Robert Bly, who was a close friend of Stafford and who also serves as the editor of this collection. After this introduction we get a thematic division of selected poems between those about family and children (1), those that relate to traveling through the dark (2), those that speak to Stafford’s part Native American ancestry (3), poems that contrast the voice of his father and mother (4), poems about his childhood in Kansas (5), and poems that deal with his refusal to serve in war (6). After this there is an index making this collection a good bit over 100 pages, which puts it towards the longer side of Stafford’s collections of poetry. And there are many familiar poems one will see here, including such frequently anthologized poems such as “Ask Me,” “Traveling Through The Dark,” “Passing Remark,” “Allegiances,” “Remembering Brother Bob,” “At The Bomb Testing Site,” “How It Is,” and many others the frequent reader of his poems will likely be very familiar with. This book, along with his other compilations, are likely to give what is increasingly the consensus verdict as to what poems of Stafford’s are the most important to read and to understand.
Given that there is such a large number of compilations of Stafford’s poems that each make varying but strikingly similar judgments as to which of Stafford’s poems are the most “essential,” or that show which of Stafford’s poems are like the popular kids at school that are selected first over and over again, what is the worth of reading one more such collection? In this case, aside from the welcome chance to reread poems by Stafford, which is something to appreciate as often as possible, what makes this collection unique is the introduction by Robert Bly. Although I do not appreciate Robert Bly as a poet (at least not the extent that I appreciate Stafford’s work), the fact that Bly was a close friend of Stafford’s and viewed Stafford’s poetry through the hermeneutic of generosity and had a great deal of insight into Stafford as a man makes his introductory material worthwhile in putting Stafford’s poetry in a context. Particularly worthwhile is the way that Bly praises his late friend for realizing that a good deal of the readers of his poetry were already awake, so that he did not talk down to them as is the habit of many contemporary poets. Poets would do well to learn from Stafford that anyone who takes the time to read books of poems is likely to be an unusual sort of reader with a great deal of insight, and that a friendly conversation from one reader to another is better than a lecture.
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