Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Laurie Byro Reads “Traveling through the Dark” by William Stafford.
Laurie, thank you for joining us today. I was not previously familiar with William Stafford’s work, although I saw his name while working on our Robert Bly Lyric Essentials post and know he was a contemporary. I’d love to hear more about poet before we discuss his poem. Who was Stafford?
Laurie Byro: He was a contemporary of Bly, born 1914 or so. He was a conscientious objector in WW2 and I believe lived in a war camp for two years. Came to poetry really late, published first at 46 or so. Made up for it, really worked for it… [becoming] the consultant to the library of Congress (now the poet laureateship). He was the one who famously said, “I try and write a poem a day” to which Bly said, “And so what if you aren’t writing so well that day?” Stafford said, “Well then I lower my standards.” I may be wrong, [but I] don’t think Bly ever was [a poet laureate].
He wrote about the ordinary and he passed this on to Naomi Shihab Nye, who had him as her mentor. [He wrote about] the importance of pulleys and buttons, and being “political without being overtly so” by sameness, by not allowing terrorists to prevail. My first poetry group met on 9/11 (I was asked by my boss if I wanted to meet) and of course we did, we had to, there has not been a day in America when folks don’t meet to discuss poetry. Stafford and Ginsberg and Nye among others would have insisted that I meet with my group. We have to do what we can in the face of a complicated world.
He has been compared to Frost for the obvious similarity with declining nature/farmland and encroachment (I think that’s a good word) the encroachment of civilization on nature, nothing civilized about it. “Traveling through the Dark” and “The Road Not Taken” or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” have similar echoes to them I think. I think Stafford is as complicated as Frost, but does rhyme in such a way, you don’t notice it. [They are] both “dark” poets. Both diving into the wreckage, as Adrienne Rich would say. ‘The wreckage’ being humanity.
Sundress: You’re making me reconsider my take on Frost—I had not considered a darker undertone. I see that tone here though. That same, “We have to do what we can in the face of a complicated world” you mentioned. When I first listened I thought, This is a great poem about survival. I love how Stafford started “Traveling through the Dark” by making his actions a question—it is usually best to roll them into the canyon. What most struck you about this poem?
Laurie Byro: The woods listening. The forest thinking about the consequence of a lost deer. I called my dad up and read him the poem. He was a farmer before HE jointed the Navy in WW2. So he “got” William Stafford instantly—dad went to 9th grade and quit. But the impulse is the same. Dad hunted (was told, “Here is ONE bullet, bring home a deer”) and hated it. So I knew he would know if the fawn could be saved by midwifery or something, like if Stafford knew what to do.
Dad says that deer have those long legs and it would have been impossible [to save the doe], he would have done the same. He said, “that’s a sad poem” and changed the subject. He taught all the young boys in our area about rifles, but he’d whisper to the deer to run faster and escape.
I also do that, “Frost is dark.” Light for me would be William Carlos Williams. And I also say “outside inside”—[WCW] obviously goes from the out, in; Stafford and Frost from the in, out. YES, they have delightful imagery, but the impulse is from the interior and not what we obviously see, some of the others go out to in. You know? Walt Whitman is a light/white poet. Emily Dickinson (dark).
Whenever I am lost in a decision I say, “but what about ___ that is my only swerving” and folks get it.
Sundress: That’s a horrible decision to have to make—to try and save the fawn or clear the road. I probably would have called animal control and let them decide. I love how simply your father’s comment sums up the cost of surviving, of making those decisions—whether or not you know them to be right. But the decision the speaker has to make is just one, ordinary, dark occurrence. You mentioned that he passed along this ability to write about the ordinary to Naomi Shihab Nye (more on that later); how has he influenced your work?
Laurie Byro: An early mentor who looked at our work told someone, “No highfalutin words,” and that stayed with me. “Be as clear as water” (Andrew Motion.) And while some work is complicated, because as this [one] does, it means several things, yes? It’s strength to me is the amazing rhyme masked as ordinary conversation. If you listen, iambic pentameter happened because that is the natural breath we take when we speak in normal conversation. William Stafford had that right, which is why Shakespeare translates so well to how we speak today. Frost writes simply. Wallace Stevens (his rival) [is] a bit more obtuse, but still, the father of modern poetry, Walt Whitman, started it by using everyday language. That is key, I think, to a successful poem. I can’t abide poetry deliberately convoluted—I think it dissipates rather than enhances. I don’t think a poem should announce, “You are reading a poem,” which is why the daft [formality of] beginning each sentence with a capital letter became outdated.
Sundress: What would you recommend for further Stafford reading? And what should we be reading by Naomi Shihab Nye?
Laurie Byro: For books, Nye first: 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. Love that book. And this one: Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.
“A Ritual to Read to Each Other” I used to leave this poem in lockers at work and say to folks “memorize this and then see me” as I was the supervisor of 20 people and often folks act out. One woman called the police on a patron “didn’t like the way she looked” and she was dressing oddly. Like me.
That’s the one I go back to as well as the “dark” and his book Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford. The “ritual” one is something we all should study. “The Errors of Childhood” and “The Darkness Around Us Is Deep” [also].
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
Laurie Byro‘s short stories and poetry have appeared in dozens of presses including: Loch Raven Review, The Literary Review, Triggerfish, Snakeskin, Redactions, Chaminade Review, Chronogram, Grasslimb, Re:al Journal, The New Jersey Journal of Poets, Red Rock Review, The Paterson Literary Review, and The 7th Quarry (from Wales) among others. She has won or placed in 39 IBPC competitions. In January 2011, Laurie was named one of the “Poets of the Decade” by the IBPC competition for her 2000-2010 work, amassing more awards than any competing poet. Her chapbook The Bird Artists was published in 2009 and Laurie was Poet Laureate of Allendale, NJ from 2009 to 2013. Her work draws on myth and fairytale and her experiences of foreign places in the years she worked as a travel agent. Her poetry insists upon the continuing importance of fantasy, mystery and “the other” in our lives. Laurie has been facilitating Circle of Voices, poetry discussion in NJ for over 15 years, currently at the West Milford Township Library where she is Poet in Residence.
William Stafford was an American poet and pacifist. In 1962, at the age of 46, Stafford published his first major collection, Traveling Through the Dark, which won the National Book Award for Poetry the following year. In 1970 he was appointed the twentieth Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Stafford passed away in 1993 after having published 57 volumes of poetry. For more, visit: williamstaffordarchives.org.