The Poet Who Sees the World Anew
Lund, Elizabeth, The Christian Science Monitor
MY NAME IS WILLIAM TELL By William Stafford Confluence Press, 78 pp., $11.
EVENING TRAIN By Denise Levertov New Directions, 120 pp., $8.95
GOOD poetry is dangerous. Emily Dickinson said that it blew the top of her head off. Some people begin to shiver. But the one thing a good poem won't do is leave you exactly the way it found you.
Poetry is all about transformation - the kind of transformation a friend of mine from Texas experienced when she saw snow for the first time. She stretched out her arms and slowly spun around and around, catching the flakes on her tongue. "Now I see," she finally said.
But how does a poet consistently blow the top of someone's head off? How does a poet transform himself or herself?
William Stafford's newest book, "My Name is William Tell" (released in paperback this spring), was the first place I looked for an answer. Stafford has long had a reputation for using ordinary language to maintain the value of the people and places around him - to discover what it means to be alive. Many poets try to do what Stafford does, yet the result is often hollow and falsely sweet. After numerous books, how would he avoid sounding like an imitation of his earlier works?
The answer to that question is simple. Stafford surprises readers from Page 1, and he allows himself to be surprised by what he has to say. "My Name is William Tell" is about overcoming "little oppressions" - age, loss, and extinction. In the first section of the book, Stafford takes the risk of relying on mostly nonhuman speakers. Among others, we hear from a bowstring, a coyote, and several extinct species. Stafford's central yet very human challenge is spelled out in "For Later," the fourth poem:
After prayers, after
I lost my way,
I wandered here. Is
there any place
for starting again,
even if years
have passed and I
after prayers, after I lost
The tone of this first section is often unsettling, and I found it strange that Stafford chose to write such "unrealistic" poems. But a careful reading proved that this approach was perhaps the only appropriate one.
Many poets have written about their own extinction and their fears for the planet to the point where these topics are almost cliche. Instead of telling readers straight out, Stafford suggests that he needs to establish a link between himself and the natural world. He lets readers feel the urgency he does, but he forces the audience to think about the implications of these poems.
In the second section, "Dreams of Childhood," the speaker stops looking at the outside world and looks inward. He addresses his own alleged failures as both a child and a parent, and the poems consistently refer to ways in which he has disappointed people. The speaker's inabilities are even mirrored in the actions of strangers.
This section could be seen as depressing or negative, but Stafford somewhat redeems these experiences by rendering them in a poetic way. I could still enjoy the beauty of the language, even before the poet hints at his own sensitivity and worth as a child. Further redemption takes places when the speaker becomes increasingly aware of his role "Of hiding important things because/ they don't belong in the world."
In sections 3 and 4, "Our Town Owned a Story" and "Crossing the Campus," Stafford continues to make use of a powerful imagination, and the result is an interesting mix of images. At times the poems are clear and direct, with subject matter that feels very true to life. In other poems the narrative is less clear, the speaker more removed, and I felt as though I were reading fantasy or fable. These poems were striking because they were so mysterious, yet where they outnumbered the more realistic poems, they sometimes seemed like missed opportunities.
The strength of this book, I realized, lies in the fact that the poet is honestly grappling with difficult situations, as when he says, "The world has overwhelmed/ my kind; the score is thousands to nothing. …