Sunday, April 20, 2008

Travis Poling on William Stafford

This is from the "Encountering William Stafford" Blog. Stafford, winner of the National Book Award for Traveling Through the Dark in 1963, gained another sort of prominence in the literary magazine world through the 1980s--in part because of his ubiquity, having written a poem a day for over fifty years. For these and other reasons, perhaps, his name also was snickered at, the way the graphomaniacs of our days are snickered at (fill in your own names here--I'll spare them further ignominy). His poems also were seen as simplistic, and rather in the same vein as other contmeporary popular poets (fill them here...).

Yet Stafford, as I've argued in Behind the Lines the book and elsewhere, does deserve our continued attention, for his lifelong commitment to an aesthetics of pacifism and a pragmatics of action. It goes without saying that many of the poems are dross (how could they not be?), but the nuggets that remain are worth examining with extreme care. This essay by Poling might be an introduction to that investigation, about which I have already written but without having the last word.

Monday, April 02, 2007
The Poetics of Peace and Activism
Remarks from Peace Forum for National Poetry Month on Thursday March 29, 2007 at Bethany Theological Seminary and Earlham School of Religion.

Where do peace, activism, and poetry converge? This is a difficult and dangerous question, so to respond, I’ll read someone else’s poetry. But first, I’ll add some comments of my own.

I think that peace and activism may best be approached from the type of ambiguity and ambivalence that poetry lends itself to so well. As I was reflecting on this, was unclear on whether to use the word “ambivalent” or “ambiguous,” so I looked them up, and I like both definitions. To be ambiguous means being “open to or having several possible meanings or interpretations,” and “lacking clearness or definiteness.” If ambiguity is no quite knowing, ambivalence is a sort of ambiguity in the midst of strife. The dictionary defines ambivalence as “uncertainty or fluctuation,” and “the coexistence of positive and negative feelings toward a person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing one in opposite directions.”

Both of these terms encompass what poetry is all about, especially when considering its engagement with the world. Poetry is not about having the answers. Rather, poetry enables us to, in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet, “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” Poetry, and the poet, dwells in the questions. Answers may come, but it is the questions that feed our souls.

When we have the answers, we cling to them so tightly that we cease being activists, and instead become perpetrators of the violence we are seeking to resist. Poetry is the opposite of violence. Poetry is about struggle more than certainty. It is the struggle, in the common language of the people, against attitudes of the proper answer, belief, or action; attitudes that, in their very existence, perpetrate violence.

And here comes the most ambiguous and ambivalent part of all of this: In a world of proper answers, beliefs and actions, I believe that poetry is often the only proper answer, belief, and action in the face of violence that urges certainty to deadly extremes. (This is why, I believe, that groups such as Poets Against War have gained what prominence they have.) I don't quite know how to address this irony of poetry being the disarmingly proper response to proper responses, except to dive into some poetry, into more questions.

William Stafford, 1970 US Poet Laureate, pacifist and activist, served as a conscientious objector in World War II in Brethren Service camps, and later joined the Church of the Brethren, while teaching English at Manchester College, a Brethren school just north of us. Stafford said once in an interview about religion and poetry, “values in any direct use, any straightforward asserting, in poetry, are counterproductive…In short, a direct assertion is a most limited offer of experience for a worthy reader.” This does not mean that all of his own poetry is completely devoid of straightforward asserting of values. But it does contain a good deal of ambivalence, which, if explored more deeply, points toward some of the most rich and powerful expressions of a life of peace and activism.

Peace was so central to Stafford’ life and writings that following his death in 1993, his estate published a collection of his writings entitled, Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War. When poet Naomi Shihab Nye, friend and student of Stafford, visited Earlham College just this past fall to lecture on peace and poetry, she recommended that everyone on campus read this book. And with that, I would like to share some readings from Stafford.

Read from Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War: Selections from Daily Writings; Poems: “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” (89) and note (157), “Poetry” (98), “Ground ZeroRebuilding-Ground-Zero [December 1982]” (96) and “Ground Zero [June 1982]” (102) with my own comments about September 11, 2001; excerpt from speech: “The Long Haul” (132).

by Travis Poling

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