William Stafford, Rimbaud & the Poet as an Embarrassed Young Man
November 15, 2010
As William Young, the interviewer, wrote in his introduction,
The intimacy of William Stafford’s poetry would seem to belie the enormous popularity the poet’s work has enjoyed, but in fact it is a product of Stafford’s keen ability to discern poetic language in everyday speech and appropriate it for his own work.
Stafford, whose first volume of poetry was not published until 1960 when he was forty-six, was born in the small town of Hutchinson, Kansas, on January 17, 1914 and died in Portland, Oregon, on August 28, 1993 at the age of seventy-nine.
He came to my high school when I was a freshman and read poetry to us. I had been reading the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, in the Louise Varese translation published by New Directions, and was all hopped up about the poet as visionary and seer, about the power of poetic vision on the soul.
So, when it came to the Q&A, I raised my hand and asked, “Mr. Stafford, do you agree with Rimbaud that the the poet must be a visionary?”
It was a brilliant question. I stood there while the entire audience turned around to admire my brilliance.
Then I saw their faces. One classmate in particular, one of the drama students, looked at me incredulously and mouthed something that appeared to be “Rim-bod?!”
Then I realized what I had done. Despite being in my fourth year of French lessons, I had badly butchered Rimbaud’s name, and rather than sounding like “Rambo,” I had made it sound like “Rim-bod.”
My face went red. I sank down into my seat. Humiliated.
Stafford, for his part, very calmly looked at me and answered, “No. I think the poet needs to be able to see the world he or she lives in, but not necessarily be visionary. Paying attention goes a lot longer than vision.”
You can read many of William Stafford’s poems at Selected William Stafford Poetry.