Kim Stafford, son of the late American poet William Stafford, published this striking poem at the end of 2016 during troubled political times in America. Like many poems and speeches of protest, it takes advantage of a number of poetic and rhythmic devices to deliver a powerful response to those men and women who are quickly reshaping this country, for better or worse. Like many poets of witness, Stafford, too, finds a voice that pivots firmly in space, as he seeks to find solid footing in the new spinning and unstable world around us, as if we were all caught in the midst of an earthquake without fully realizing it.
If you were a century, I would be one breath,
striving to speak my honest syllable…
In addition to being a poet and teacher, Kim Stafford is a published and award-winning essayist, editor, and musician. He founded and directs the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Like his father, his poetry and writings deal largely with nature, place, preservation, and the West.
African-American poet and author Haki Madhubuti published Run Toward Fear in 2004, where this short poem first appeared. As its title suggests, the poem seems written to challenge poets and writers and shame much poetry and writing being published today in magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. In simple language–the poem is just two short questions–the speaker asks each of us to consider something else in our writing: “a poetry of resistance,” as it is put it in the poem’s opening line. Where is it? Great writers question the validity of what they are writing about and, especially, how they are writing frequently, and Madhubuti reminds us (with a not so gentle slap in the face) that even writers (should) have a responsibility to defy and resist whatever they don’t ethically agree with. Probably an even more important lesson to ponder today.
Anne Sexton was one of the first poets I read extensively. Her poetic language, compared to most of what I had encountered before, was raw and crackling with electricity. I appreciated then (and still do) her brevity and barrenness, her roughness and lack of skin. Everything in her poems is written in vivid color and stark form. At the time, I wasn’t aware of her lifelong struggles with depression and mental illness. I had no idea what confessional poetry was (I still dislike the term). Sexton’s poems are so much more than personal and to label them “confessional” only seems to limit your understanding of a true poetic genius. Her poems are brave and wild songs she cast purposely, even recklessly, into the gaping void. Among other honors, she received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1967.
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.
I know very little about the poet Logya Pema, except that he wrote this poem while in Garzê, an autonomous Tibetan prefecture occupying the western arm of Sichuan province in the People’s Republic of China. Logya Pema’s poem was written as part of an online poetry competition that took place on March 22, 2012 by the Three Provinces of Tibet poetry group. The title “Life Experience” was given to the poets, and they started to write at 22:30, finishing in one hour at 23:30.
Barbara Guest was an American poet (1920-2006) and early member of the influential New York School of poets and painters. Lyrical, imaginative, and often playful, Guest’s poems are deeply concerned with language construction and form. In 1999, she was awarded the Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Poetry Society of America. Her book, Moscow Mansions (1973), from which “Illyria” was taken, was a landmark collection of poems that borrowed elements of Surrealism, abstract expressionism, experimental music, and jazz.