Tweetspeak Poetry’s 2020 theme is Wisdom, and this column will examine the wisdom found in reading together. Our guide for this journey is the poet William Stafford.
Unlike some poets, whose mission is to explore and to question, Stafford’s is to declare. He’s been called preachy. Well, maybe what we all need right now is a poet to preach to us. Because we know without being told what will happen if we do not have A Ritual to Read to Each Other. It is already happening. We all feel a bit lost.
It’s been said that Stafford’s poems are always west of where we are, and this one will be our map for the entire year, pushing us to our personal western edge. So grab the tail of the elephant in front of you, and let’s set out.
A Ritual to Read to Each Other
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
If this poem is declaring, it’s saying we need each other. But in its declaration, this poem is playing with style: blank verse style.
Blank verse, traditionally, is a poem written in iambic pentameter (five beats per line), but the lines don’t rhyme. It wasn’t until I was three weeks into reading this one aloud every afternoon, with my cup of tea, after listening to The Slowdown, that I realized the pattern. Then I read it again and counted the beats on my fingers. Yep, five in every one. Except in this line:
“lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.”
I count six.
“lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.”
That means that the line that talks about getting lost in the dark is literally the line that gets lost from the form of blank verse. It goes rogue and adds a sixth beat.
I see what you did there, Stafford.
And isn’t that what life feels like, when we get lost in darkness? There’s too much. We’re burdened with this wretched extra beat. Help! we cry, I’m stuck with an elephant who doesn’t know the way!
Or perhaps our cry is, Help! I’ve just realized there are real live snakes surrounding my home sweet home!
To launch this new reading column, I returned to a book I’ve loved before, a short memoir called Rattlesnake Stories by Anna Mitchael. It addresses the changes wrought by motherhood and our need to face our fears. In Mitchael’s book, that fear is represented by rattlesnakes — the snakes that live on the ranch she calls home with her two small boys. How she listens to that fear and moves herself west of where she ever wanted to go was worth reading again.
If I were to take Mitchael’s book and cast it the form of Stafford’s poem (albeit without the blank verse), it would go something like this:
If you don’t know the kind of person I am (terrified of snakes)
and I don’t know the kind of person you are (seemingly not-terrified of snakes)
a pattern that the oddsmaker made may prevail
and following advice from the wrong girlfriend I may miss a picture worth 10,000 words.
For there are many snakes in bluebonnet season,
a slither that alerts you to danger
sending even young men in boots hopping away
from a perch where rattlers sunbathe.
And as old men gather for Styrofoam cups of coffee,
and if one bursts in with news the others will listen politely:
though they won’t believe it until they inspect the evidence
to know when it is truly snake season.
And so I appeal to children, who want to see the herpetarium,
to dogs, who stick their noses where they shouldn’t:
though we are all afraid, we should consider—
lest we encounter one on a morning run.
For it is important that fearful people face their fears,
or torpor may imprison them inside their homes;
the games we play with our children—20 Questions or What Animal Am I—
should be honest: the world is a dangerous place.
Let’s face it together, friends. Join us each month and share your own wise reads in the comments or online, using the hashtag #readwisdomtoeachother and tagging us @tspoetry.
1. What stories have you turned to in times of fear?
2. Is there a poem that is speaking wisdom to your soul?
3. Share your November pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
To learn more about the wisdom of this poem, read author Parker Palmer’s post at On Being
To see a poet at work, check out Stafford’s draft copy of this poem
Browse more about William Stafford
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro
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