Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Had I Looked Around the Corner: Thoughts on William Stafford

By Brian Nixon

"I stand and dream another world instead," wrote William Stafford in the year 1942. Stafford wrote this as a conscientious objector during World War II, stationed as a Civilian Public Servant in California.

As providence would have it, Stafford became Poetry Consultant of the Unites States Library of Congress in 1971 and Poet Laureate of Oregon in 1975.

Stafford is the author of over 60 books of poetry, verse, and stories. As a participant in the Church of the Brethren, William was a voice in the wilderness, seeking, as our quote above stated, "another world instead."

My first encounter with Mr. Stafford came at the 1991 Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren, held in Portland, Ore. The theme that year was "Behold! The Wonder of God's Presence."

I drove up with a friend of mine, Isaac Docter, and camped out just north of the city. We drove into Portland daily to hear lectures on a variety of topics: peace, justice, Native American issues, and most importantly, how to follow Jesus. I still have vivid memories of my time listening to artists, storytellers, theologians, and musicians. However, in hindsight, it was at this conference that I had one of my greatest disappointments: not meeting William Stafford.

As an impressionable college student, I looked over the plethora of lectures, seeing one that read, "Poetry Reading: William Stafford." This sounded great to me, but I was unsure of exactly who Stafford was. As a member of the Church of the Brethren, I had heard of Mr. Stafford, but was not yet quite "into" him. I knew he published a book of poetry with Brethren Press called "A Scripture of Leaves," and was well loved among the Brethren folk.

But as I stood there and looked at the other conference offerings, I finally decided upon a folk group concert instead (you see, I was "into" music). Imagine that! I chose a now-forgotten folk group over William Stafford!

I went to the folk concert and listened. I sat there, unimpressed. Mainly because I knew I should be at the Stafford reading (something was nagging me that he was important). So, when the opportunity arose, I left the concert and ran over to the room where Stafford was reading. I looked in the door; the room was packed.

I decided to sit outside the room, listening to the final couple of poems. To this day, I don't remember which poems he finished his reading with. And even more disappointing, I didn't look into the room to see Mr. Stafford reading the poems.

Had I looked around the corner, I would have seen the poet that, over the next 15 years of my life, would bring me great pleasure and thought; someone I would turn to over and over again.

To make up for my mistake of not getting his book at the Brethren conference, I called Brethren Press (a couple years after) to see if they had his book, "A Scripture of Leaves." To my great surprise, they did. Even a greater surprise was that the book was one of the last signed copies. It now sits prominently on my shelf.

I now collect William Stafford books. And since that first great purchase, I have found many treasures. My favorite is a first edition signed copy of "Traveling Through the Dark" (a collectors dream, largely because it was the book he won the National Book Award in 1963).

Yet through all this collecting and book searching, I have found Stafford, through his poetry, to be a gentle reminder that there is another way of living. And as Christians, we do, indeed, look for "another world instead": the coming of God's kingdom, the establishment of His world, a dream that is really a reality yet unseen.

So until then, we abide, live, and work for building the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

And somehow William Stafford knew this, for in his poem, Reading The Big Weather (found in "A Scripture of Leaves"), he summarized the tension of living for Kingdom and waiting for the Kingdom:
Reading the Big Weather

Mornings we see our breath. Weeds
sturdy for winter are waiting down
by the tracks. Birds, high and silent,
pass almost invisible over town.

Time, always almost ready
to happen, leans over our shoulders reading
the headlines for something not there. "Republicans
Control Congress"--the year spins on unheeding.

The moon drops back toward the sun, a sickle
gone faint in the dawn: there is a weather
of things that happen too faint for headlines,
but tremendous, like willows touching the river.

This earth we are riding keeps trying to tell us
something with its continuous scripture of leaves.
--Brian Nixon is a pastor, writer, musician, and family man from Costa Mesa, Calif. This article was first published by ASSIST News Service at www.assistnews.net. "Reading the Big Weather" is reprinted with permission from Brethren Press. Order "A Scripture of Leaves" from Brethren Press for $12.95 plus shipping and handling, call 800-441-3712. To learn more about William Stafford's early poems pick up the new release by Graywolf Press, "Another World Instead."

Source: 4/22/2008 Earth Day Newsline

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