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Songs to wide for sound: William Stafford

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I return often to William Stafford's writing because it keeps me honest. There's something about it that just won't let me pretend to like or admire it if I don't. Admiration is a tricky problem in contemporary literature: one sometimes feels pressured to pay homage to writing of dubious merit. Stafford won't permit that--from me or anyone else, I suspect.

A famous poet once said, in giving advice to young writers, that they choose as a guide an author who seemed genuinely human to them - in other words, an author whose work had identifiable flaws as well as virtues. Stafford is only one of my guides, but on occasion he's good at getting under my skin. I'm annoyed with his abstractions when they get out of control, or with his images when they seem forced, or with his odd diction. Sometimes even his cadences become suddenly, inexplicably awkward.

After all that I can look at a given poem--for example, ''Answerers'' or ''By the Snake River''--and say, ''Well . . . but I like that poem.'' And I'll know why, too. There will be something there, some spirit so real working through the language that I can't help but admire it. That's when I'm sure that Stafford is one of the rarest talents of all - a genius of a regular guy.

To be a ''regular guy'' is, to me, to feel all the things we always feel--sorrows, regrets, delights, maybe even intimations of immortality--while we're going about our jobs, or talking to a neighbor, or hiking out in the woods. To be a genius at it is to be able to articulate it as accurately as words can get--without trumping it up into some grandiloquent dogma or sentimental falsehood. Stafford can articulate it; he has the genius.

In ''Answerers,'' for example, Stafford takes on the problem of intuition, particularly the intuition that the life we walk and work our way through every day is not the only life there is. It's not an uncommon intuition; for a lot of us it flickers through the mind now and then like a vague hope, too nebulous for words. Stafford begins to give it words. Out of the vastness of that unknown, he chooses his own starting point.

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