This poem was written by an American poet by the name of William Stafford who was given the prestigious post of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1970- the 20th poet to be appointed that post. As a child of the Great Depression he grew up doing just about any kind of labor available to a teenager. Nevertheless, he received a B.A. from the University of Kansas in 1937 and fought in the Armed Forces in 1941 while pursuing his master’s and became a conscientious objector going into alternative service during WWII. After receiving his master’s he wrote a memoir titled Down in my Heart which was published in 1948 describing his work in the forest service camps. After teaching in Oregon for a time he went back to University and received a Ph.D. in 1954 at the University of Iowa and taught at colleges in Indiana and California. He started late in his life writing poetry and received his first award in 1963 for Traveling Through the Dark which was the National Book Award for Poetry. At the end of his life his catalog consisted of 22,000 poems- 3,000 of which were published in 63 separate books. His standout poems for the book from which the following poem is included are Choosing a Dog and The Trouble With Reading. He wrote several prose books during his writing career and one book of translation. Among his papers on the day he died these lines were still wet on the paper of the poem he’d started: “You don’t have to prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready for what God sends.”
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 open dyke.
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.
from The Way It Is Graywolf Press, 1998
– William Stafford
(January 17, 1914-August 28, 1993)
The Castle Lady
ti tengo d’occhio !
But above all my brethren do not swear,
either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.
Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’ lest you fall into judgment.