Wednesday, January 17, 2024

What’s in My Journal

‘Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Thing, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for Alaska.’
This is part of a poem by the American writer, William Stafford, born 110 years ago today. He is said to have kept a daily journal for 50 years, but the only published extracts available online show the journal to be more a collection of epigrams and political/philosophical thoughts than a personal diary. 

Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, on 17 January 1914. During the Depression, his family moved around in search of work, and he contributed by doing odd jobs, often on farms. He studied at the University of Kansas, and was drafted into the armed forces in 1941. However, as a registered conscientious objector, he performed alternative service, forestry and soil conservation, until 1946 in the Civilian Public Service camps. While working in California in 1944, he met and married Dorothy Hope Frantz, with whom he later had four children. He received an M.A. also from the University of Kansas in 1947. His thesis - the prose memoir Down In My Heart describing his experience in the forest service camps - was published in 1948.

After moving to Oregon, Stafford taught English at Lewis & Clark College. In 1954, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He was already 48 when his first major collection of poetry was published, Traveling Through the Dark, which won the 1963 National Book Award for Poetry. Despite his late start, he was a frequent contributor to magazines and anthologies and eventually published 57 volumes of poetry. His poetry often explored themes of peace, mindfulness, and the human experience. He believed in the power of everyday moments and the importance of observing the world with a keen and empathetic eye. His work is said to be characterised by its clarity, simplicity, and a reverence for the ordinary. He died in 1993. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia and the Poetry Foundation.

According to Wikipedia, Stafford kept a daily journal for 50 years. Although these journals do not appear to have been published in their own right some extracts can be found in Every War Has Two Losers edited by Kim Stafford and published by Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, in 2003. This can be borrowed digitally from Internet Archive.

‘In editing this unusual book,’ Kim Stafford says in his forward, ‘I have chosen in many instances to represent my fathers unpublished writing exactly as he penned it in the early morning, alone with his thoughts. The language is sometimes very compact, the thought line intuitive, and the effect both intimate and challenging. The poems are represented as he revised and published them, and most of the interviews he had a chance to review. Some of the Daily Writings, however, were never revised, and they live here with you in their native form. I invite you to read these as they were written: attentive, deliberate, in a spirit of welcome as thoughts come forth.’

Here are several extracts from Stafford’s journal as found in Every War Has Two Losers.

25 November 1970
‘When a war looms, the enemy emerges as wrong and a menace. How long before was it wrong and a menace? What was done then? Should more have been done earlier? Could it have been swayed earlier? Were the aggressive people now among those trying to sway earlier?’ 

1 December 1974
‘Divisions among groups bring forward aggressive leaders, whose function requires of them an emphasizing of positive qualities in their own group, a tolerance of distortion in regard to the “enemy,” a temporary using of means ordinarily frowned upon. War leaders are liars.’

11 October 1978
‘Living traditionally, the country life, we cultivate the ground. We know the seed will produce after its kind. Why then do we sow suspicion and hatred in some places? If we show goodwill, honesty, reliability, industry, thrift, cheer, will these tend to produce those qualities in others around us? And the contrary is true too?

But do we have enemies? Whence came their feelings toward us? Can a serenity view and understand?’

12 July 1981
‘You can’t help noticing these days that right hasn’t prevailed.’

12 September 1981
‘The wind you walk against but do not feel is ignorance. Your foolish face has happiness on one side, but the world pressed on the other.’

And, finally, here is a poem penned by Stafford in 1981

What’s in My Journal

‘Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Thing, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can't find them. Someone’s terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.’

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