A tribute to William Stafford

Poets and community members will pay tribute to the work of Oregon's former poet laureate, William Stafford, during an annual poetry reading at Southern Oregon University.

The Friends of William Stafford and The Friends of the Hannon Library will host a poetry reading at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, at the library on the SOU campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland.

Seven poets — Gary Lark, Dave Harvey, M.E. Hope, Amy MacLennan, Charlotte Abernathy and Maria Fernandez, as well as Oregon's current poet laureate, Lawson Inada — will read a poem by Stafford and one of their own. Vincent Wixon, a former Crater High School English teacher, will give an update on new publications from Stafford's archives. The audience also will be invited to read a favorite Stafford poem or tell a story related to Stafford and his work. The evening will conclude with a short clip of Stafford reading and a film based on Stafford's journal, "Every War has Two Losers."

"He led a very full life as a poet and teacher," said Patty Wixon, who has studied Stafford's work for many years alongside her husband.

Stafford taught at Lewis & Clark College for about 30 years as well as at Manchester College in Indiana and San Jose State in California.

In 1970, Stafford was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, a position now recognized as the U.S. poet laureate.

During his lifetime (1914-1993), his work was published in about 62 substantial works, and more than 12 works have been published posthumously, the most recent being "Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947" edited by Fred Marchant and published in 2008. There also are hundreds of anthologies and textbooks containing Stafford's work, Wixon said.

The Watzek Library at Lewis & Clark College now houses Stafford's archives, including more than 20,000 daily entries, much more correspondence and about 6,000 poems, she said.

"At the same time he was acknowledged at the national level, he was also very much a people's poet," Lawson said.

Patty Wixon said she would agree with Lawson.

"His poems really strike our deep human concerns and connections with each other," she said. "Even the poetry he wrote 50 years ago seems relevant to what's happening today ... His poetry is really timeless and people of all ages can understand it."

"I know some people think of his work as simplistic, but it is far from simplistic. His language is accessible in that he doesn't use a lot of big words that people have to go to a dictionary and look it up ... (and) they might begin with something that seems simple like walking down a road, but it can open up a whole, whole world of ideas."

Although free verse, Stafford's work cannot be limited to just that, she said.

"If you study the poetry, you'll see that it doesn't have an end rhyme, but it has internal rhymes," Wixon added.

"At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border" is one example of his work:

This is the field where the battle did not happen,

where the unknown soldier did not die.

This is the field where grass joined hands,

where no monument stands,

and the only heroic thing is the sky.Birds fly here without any sound,

unfolding their wings across the open.

No people killed — or were killed — on this ground

hallowed by neglect and an air so tame

that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

Wixon's husband spent several years interviewing and researching Stafford's life and poetry. With the help of grants and other teachers, he produced one documentary and two follow-up films about Stafford — "What the River Says" (1989), "The Life of the Poem" (1992) and "The Methow River Poems" (1997). Since then, the films have been compiled onto one DVD titled "William Stafford: Life and Poems."

Through the work and organization of Friends of William Stafford, his legacy is celebrated across the country in January.

For more information about the SOU poetry reading, call 541-552-6823.

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