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Discover the poetic legacy of William Stafford

Oregon's former poet laureate is the subject of a literary class at Wilsonville Public Library


He might have died two decades ago, but the legacy of former Oregon poet laureate William Stafford lives on as strong as ever in 2014.

by: SUBMITTED - William Stafford was the Oregon poet laureate between 1970 and his death in 1993. To celebrate the work of one of America’s most beloved poets and authors, the Wilsonville Public Library is hosting a literary series based around Stafford’s work. It forms part of the Stafford Centennial, a statewide celebration of what would be Stafford’s 100th year were he still alive. Led by emeritus professor John Ehrstine, the Stafford series kicks off at 6 p.m. Jan. 29, at the library, located at 8200 SW Wilsonville Road. Classes will cost $40 for the full series, with discounted textbooks. For more information, call the library at 503-682-2744.

It’s a continuation of the popular series of literary seminars headed by Ehrstine, who enjoyed a long career as an English and literature professor at Washington State University before retiring to Wilsonville. And to hear him tell it, the legacy of Stafford is as significant as any American author.

“There’s a lot to say about him,” Ehrstine said, pointing to a prolific career that had its roots in Stafford’s experiences as a conscientious objector during World War II.

“He as unusual poet, a very singular poet,” said Ehrstine, who met Stafford on a number of occasions at Washington State. “One of the most striking things about him is his tone; he wants to get everything into his tone of voice. I think he wants the whole universe including the phone book in there, it’s so decided in his case. He’s so completely given over to his own tone of voice, it’s not like anyone else’s.”

Stafford’s first published volume of poetry, “Traveling Through the Dark,” was released in 1962 and won the 1963 National Book Award for Poetry. The title poem is one of his most well-known works. The prose describes the author’s encounter with a freshly killed doe on a lonely mountain road. Before muscling the deer off the road and into a ditch, the writer discovers the deer had been pregnant. More shockingly, the fawn inside is still alive.

Stafford was known for his daily ritual of writing, for which he set aside quiet time. That allowed him to focus on his work, which shared tales of the ordinary with readers across the globe.

Ehrstine points to a line from a poem by William Blake in order to explain Stafford’s work.

“’Follow my golden thread and I’ll lead you to the promised land,’ that was written by William Blake,” Ehrstine said. “I like that for Stafford, because so many of his poems seem built on incidentals; any little thing will start him off, and I think he really means that any golden thread will do.

“(Stafford) is the most the tentative poet, he doesn’t want to seem to campaign for anything,” Ehrstine continued. “And, yet, his poems do; he was a pacifist, but he doesn’t talk about it, he just is.”by: VERN UYETAKE - Kim Stafford, William Stafford's son and literary executor, welcomed the crowd at the Lake Oswego Reads kickoff event Jan. 7. He will speak at the conclusion of the Wilsonville series.

Stafford was born in Kansas in 1914, the oldest of three children in a family that valued literacy. As a teenager during the Depression, Stafford and his family moved from town to town as his father sought work. He graduated from high school in 1933 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas in 1937. He was drafted into the military in 1941 as a post-graduate student at Kansas, but declared himself a conscientious objector and performed alternative service from 1942 to 1946 in a string of Civilian Public Service camps. The camps provided workers for forestry and soil conservation work in Arkansas, California and Illinois, and paid roughly $2.50 per month.

Stafford moved to Oregon in 1948 to teach at Lewis & Clark College and would remain there, with short absences, until his retirement in 1980.

As he taught, he wrote. And in 1970 he was named consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. Five years later Oregon Gov. Tom McCall appointed him the state’s fourth poet laureate. He remained in that position until his death in 1993.

Fellow poet Robert Bly, author of a book on Stafford’s work called “The Darkness Around Us Is Deep,” wrote in the forward that Stafford’s legacy is one to be treasured.

“William Stafford is a master,” Bly wrote. “He belongs in that category of artists the Japanese call national treasures.”

Accordingly, the Oregon Library Association has committed their 2014 “Everybody Reads” statewide program to Stafford’s work. Oregon Reads also is celebrating the Stafford Centennial this year, with a string of events scheduled throughout 2014.

As part of that celebration, the current Oregon poet laureate, Paulanne Peterson, will attend the first class in Wilsonville on Jan. 29. She will speak to students about Stafford and his work. And to wrap up the class, there will be a special session March 19 at the Wilsonville McMenamins Old Church at which William Stafford’s son, Kim Stafford, will speak about his father’s legacy.

“He was very unpretentious,” Ehrstine said. “And his poems are like that too, and it’s one of the great appeals about them.”



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