Oregon’s poet remembered

“Accept what comes. The first reaction is welcome, welcome.” Those were the first lines that William Stafford, Oregon’s poet laureate, spoke at the last poetry reading before his death in 1993.

Stafford was a humble, quiet man with a gift of talking to people. He lived a simple, unfettered life and spent most of it looking around, carefully. He noticed things.

His observations were translated with paper and pencil into glorious, heartfelt poetry, the kind of simple words that touched people.

In 1940, Stafford was named consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, a position that would later become known as “United States Poet Laureate.”

In 1975, Stafford became poet laureate of Oregon. Oregon established a laureate position in 1923, and has since had four appointees: Edwin Markham, Ben Hur Lampman, Ethel Romig Fuller and the widely adored Stafford, who held the position for 15 years.

Throughout the month of January each year, the Friends of William Stafford (FOWS) honors and celebrates Stafford’s birthday, Jan. 17, by hosting a series of parties throughout Oregon and in several other states.

At each party, guest poets and artists lead off with readings of Stafford’s work. Audience members are then invited to read their favorite Stafford poems.

Oregon has never appointed a successor to Stafford, although the idea of a new Oregon laureate has resurfaced in the last few years. Oregon’s Cultural Partners and Governor Ted Kulongoski are currently working to restore the position.

Stafford was born in 1914 to a highly literate family that valued books and reading. After earning graduate degrees in literature, he began teaching at Lewis and Clark College in 1948 and made Oregon his home.

Stafford also began publishing his poetry, issuing his first work of poetry in 1960 at age 46, an age considered late for a successful poet. But regardless of the late start, the quality of Stafford’s work was apparent.

Stafford would eventually publish more than 50 books of poetry. His work varied in scope, from gentle observations of nature to blooded stories of war and conquest, and even to relationships between humans.

A conscientious objector in World War II, Stafford was a known pacifist who valued awareness, and wrote “It is important that awake people be awake.”

FOWS was created to perpetuate Stafford’s legacy and to further poetry in Oregon. Their mission statement declares them to be “a non-profit organization dedicated to raising common awareness of the power of poetry and literature by modeling the legacy, life and works of poet William Stafford.”

Attend one of the annual Stafford parties and you will hear testimonials that stretch on throughout the evening. At one of the recent parties, one woman recounted having him as her freshman English teacher in a class with only eight other students, a situation for which she felt incredibly lucky.

A young 20-something with a glowing smile and brilliant red hair recited her favorite Stafford poem from memory, energy spilling from her.

A man told of how Stafford had taught his sixth graders for a while, capturing them with a sense of nature and of place.

A woman swayed gently from side to side as she read, making Stafford’s words into a rhythmic prayer. Another read from Stafford’s anti-war works and told how the words accompanied her on a tour through war-torn Cambodia.

“The stars watch you,” she read. “And they already know your name.”

According to one speaker, Stafford’s first word as an infant was “moon.” The fullness and luminosity of this magical word followed him through his life as he touched a myriad of lives, speaking to people in a unique way and reaching into a part of them that was previously secret, gifting them with moonbeams.

Stafford died at his home in Lake Oswego, Ore., on Aug. 28, 1993. The poem he had written that morning included the line, “Be ready for what God sends.”

For a complete list of Stafford birthday readings, visit www.williamstafford.org/pages/events.html.