William Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas in 1914. While pursuing his Master’s Degree at the University of Kansas, Stafford was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces. Being a registered pacifist, Stafford served in the Civilian Public Service Corps from 1942-1946 where he worked in forestry and soil conversation. After completing his degree, he moved to Oregon, where he was a long-standing teacher at Lewis and Clark College. Known for his plain-spoken style–and his views against war and violence–Stafford’s poems (of which there are many–he wrote a whopping 22,000 in his lifetime) continue to have a profound influence on young writers. In 1963, his poetry collection, Traveling Through the Dark, won the National Book Award for Poetry.
Stafford’s poem “A Message from the Wanderer” is a strange poem, written from the point-of-view of an ex-con. The language moves artfully between literal and figurative language while it explores private history and public meaning. It is a message, but for whom? Stafford, indeed, seemed to pay close attention to the idea of messages, titling one of his later books, An Oregon Message. The message here focuses on an antelope and its form, at first unseen, in the grass on a hill in the sunlight. The image takes on immense power and triggers something we have all experienced at one time or another, a trick of the eyes. Yet, somehow, Stafford makes it into something much more, something we see again and again in his best poems.
A Message from the Wanderer
Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.
Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occured to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.
Inside, I dreamed of constellations—
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.
Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as—often, in light, on the open hills—
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then—even before you see—
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.
That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.
Now—these few more words, and then I’m
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.
There will be that form in the grass.