Posted on Mar 28, 2014 in Alumni News and News
This year marks the 100th anniversary of poet William Stafford’s birth, and on March 31 a Kansas celebration of the centennial will convene at Washburn University in Topeka, with readings and tributes by many writers, several with KU connections.
Thomas Fox Averill, c’71, g’74, writer-in-residence and professor of English at Washburn, says the daylong event—which starts at 9:30 a.m. and concludes with a 7:00 p.m. lecture by Stafford’s son, the poet and essayist Kim Stafford—will model Stafford’s inclusive spirit. Three-dozen writers will share a poem by Stafford and a poem of their own.
“We’re trying to make it a celebration rather than a conference,” Averill says. “We’re trying to emphasize the inclusiveness and democratic spirit of Stafford as a writer and as a teacher, the notion he had of welcoming everything.
“He was certainly not an academic poet and certainly not a rigid poet; he was very inclusive and very down home in his way.”
Stafford, c’37, g’46, was born in Hutchinson on Jan. 17, 1914. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he was drafted into the military during World War II but applied for conscientious objector status and worked in Civilian Public Service camps for four years. After the war he returned to the Hill and earned a master’s degree in English. His graduate thesis recounted his wartime experience in the camps and was published in 1947 as Down In My Heart. He did not publish his first major poetry collection until he was 48, when Traveling Through the Dark won the 1963 National Book Award. He would go on to publish more than 60 books. In 1970 he was named Consultant In Poetry to the Library of Congress (the position now known as U.S. Poet Laureate) and in 1975 was appointed Poet Laureate of Oregon, where he taught for many years at Lewis and Clark College. He died in 1993.
The celebration in the Washburn Rooms of the Memorial Union will include “videos, memories and talk” as well as readings by guest writers such as Robert Day, c’64, g’66; Wes Jackson, g’60; Ted Kooser; Denise Low-Weso, c’71, g’74, PhD’98; Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, PhD’96; and Wyatt Townley. Visitors are encouraged to bring letters, photographs, books, posters, articles and memories to add to the Stafford trove in the Thomas Fox Averill Kansas Studies Collection at Washburn’s Mabee Library.
Despite his position as poet laureate of Oregon, there’s no doubt that Stafford was a quintessentially Kansas poet, Averill says.
“So much of his work is about Kansas and harks back to his childhood here, to the attitudes of Kansans. He returned so often to the imagery of Kansas—wind, grass, sky, sun—and the kind of quiet language and landscape of Kansas.
“I really think what he did for regional writers is give the region a recognizable voice that captured the culture and character and place that is so commonly called flyover country. He was such a powerful influence on so many writers, he’s kind of the shadow you have to come out from under if you’re gonna be a Kansas poet.”
At the Breaks Near the River
Autumn some year will discover again
that gesture of the flattened grass, wild
on the Cimarron hills when a storm
out of northern New Mexico raided
Cheyenne country to hunt for rusty armor
left by Coronado, and my father sifting his
fingers in that loose ground of the Indian
campsite said, “Oh, Bill, to know
everything! Look—the whole world is alive,
waving together toward history!”
What came, our mother took: like rain,
barrels of it from off the eaves,
to wash our hair, the purest rinse;
and the swept-up dust—for the sweet pea trench,
the best mulch for the brightest flowers.
Wind worked the well;
sun bleached the clothes;
winter made real the holidays.
Troubles just made her rich, like this:
“A woman like me, to live so long.”
—from Kansas Poems of William Stafford, edited by Denise Low-Weso