Sunday Jan. 17, 2016

0:00/ 0:00

West Highland

Whenever I hear their aged names—
Lena, Cora Mae, Lydia, Bea—
I think of prim, widowed ladies from
the Baptist Church in West Highland Township;
and imagine their ordered, born-again lives
beyond the latter-day suburban sprawl
of disenchantment and convenience stores.
Lives lived out at the same pace as their mothers
and their mothers’ people years before them,
between potlucks and bake sales and bazaars,
missions and revivals, Sunday to Sunday.
And for romance, they had Nights to Remember—
in summer, the Bible School picnics,
October, the Farm Bureau Harvest Ball.
All winter long, they courted in parlors
with men named Thurmond or Wilbur or Russell Lloyd.
They married at Easter and bore children
and outlived their husbands and tend the graves now
after Sunday services, weather permitting.
Whenever I see them, arm in arm,
at funerals where they sing or bring baked hams
in memory of one of their sisters, dead
of the long years or the nursing home,
I think of how the century for them
was neither wars nor science nor the evening news
but a blur of careful rites of passage:
baptisms and marriages and burials.
And I envy their heavens furnished like parlors
with crocheted doilies on the davenport
and Aunt Cecelia, who never got married,
singing “In the Garden” or “Abide with Me”
and God the Father nodding in His armchair
at saints and angels who come and go
with faces like neighbors and with names they know.

“West Highland” by Thomas Lynch from Still Life in Milford. © Norton, 1988. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of American poet and pacifist William Stafford (books by this author), born in Hutchinson, Kansas (1914) and best known for the title poem in his collection Traveling Through the Dark (1962), which won the National Book Award (1963). The poem is about a man who pushes a dead deer off a cliff, but it’s also about finding the right path in life. The poem displays all of Stafford’s trademarks: a graceful humility, a plainspoken voice. Stafford’s friend and fellow poet Richard Hugo said, “I happen to not care for it much,” and Stafford, years later, agreed. He said: “It isn’t the kind of poem that I feel took me anywhere; I know how to write that kind of poem. I’m more interested in the ones I don’t know how to write.”

His family moved often during the Great Depression, but they were avid readers, especially his mother. Stafford said: “In every town we lived in, there was one great big door ready to open for anyone — the library. And I never met a library I didn’t like.”

Stafford worked hard to help his family survive: he delivered newspapers, worked sugar beet fields, raised vegetables, and took a job as an electrician’s apprentice. Once, he was even yoked to a plow. When Stafford was drafted by the U.S. Army (1941), he told the draft board that he’d learned in church that it was wrong to kill. He registered as a conscientious objector, spending four years in Civilian Public Service Camps in Arkansas, California, and Illinois, often working for the Forest Service and in soil conservation. He made $2.50 a month. When he was asked how he became a conscientious objector, he answered: “I didn’t become one; I always was one. I thought all right-thinking people would behave that way.”

It was during this time that Stafford began the daily writing practice he would continue for the rest of his life. He woke up early, before everyone else in camp, and wrote in his journal. Those entries became a prose memoir, Down in My Heart, about his civilian camp experiences (1947). After the war, he taught high school, had children, kept writing, and published his first collection of poems, West of Your City, when he was 46 years old (1960). After the success of Traveling Through the Dark, he taught for years at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, where he was beloved for his democratic style of teaching, which boiled down to “No praise, no blame.” He served as the poet laureate of Oregon (1975). When he was asked when he realized he wanted to become a poet, he answered, “When did other people give up the idea of being a poet?”

William Stafford published over 50 collections of poetry and prose, including The Rescued Year (1966), Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation (1978), You Must Revise Your Life (1986), and The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (1998).

Stafford said, “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.”

It’s the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1706). He was a printer, a scientist, an inventor, a writer, the founder of America’s first lending library, and one of the Founding Fathers of America itself. He only had a couple of years of formal schooling, but he read continually, and early on, he thought he might become a poet. He didn’t have the knack for it so, inspired by the essays of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, he turned to prose instead. He recalled in his Autobiography (1794) that writing well became “of great Use to me in the Course of my Life, and was a principal Means of my Advancement.”

It’s the birthday of the youngest of the Brontë sisters: Anne Brontë (books by this author) was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in 1820. We don’t know as much about her as we do about her sisters, Charlotte and Emily. She was sensitive, passionate, and spiritual, but also a bit meek and timid. She was especially close to Emily, and they would make up fanciful stories about an imaginary country called “Gondal.” When she was 19 she took a position as a governess because she wanted to contribute to the support of the household. Six years later, she returned home and began writing. The three sisters hatched a plan to publish a book of poetry under three male pseudonyms: Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The book got a couple of good reviews and sold all of two copies. But Anne continued to write, and she sold a couple of poems to regional periodicals. She also wrote two novels: the first, Agnes Grey (1847), sold pretty well, and her second, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), was a smash hit. It sold out the first printing in six weeks.

It was also in 1848 that Charlotte and Anne went to London to reveal the fact that the Bell brothers were really the Brontë sisters. Anne in particular had gotten frustrated over the speculation about the sex of the authors, and whether it was appropriate for women to write novels. She wrote: “I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.”

Within the next year, three of the four Brontë siblings — Emily, Anne, and their brother, Branwell — died of tuberculosis. Anne was the last to die, and before she died, leaving Charlotte alone, Anne whispered, “Take courage.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®