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Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford

Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford

by Kim Stafford

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A prolific writer, famous pacifist, respected teacher, and literary mentor to many, William Stafford is one of the great American poets of the 20th century. His first major collection--Traveling through the Dark--won the National Book Award. William Stafford published more than sixty-five volumes of poetry and prose and was Poetry Consultant to the Library of


A prolific writer, famous pacifist, respected teacher, and literary mentor to many, William Stafford is one of the great American poets of the 20th century. His first major collection--Traveling through the Dark--won the National Book Award. William Stafford published more than sixty-five volumes of poetry and prose and was Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress--a position now know as the Poet Laureate. Before William Stafford's death in 1993, he gave his son Kim the greatest gift and challenge: to be his literary executor.

In Early Morning, Kim creates an intimate portrait of a father and son who shared many passions: archery, photography, carpentry, and finally, writing itself. But Kim also confronts the great paradox at the center of William Stafford's life. The public man, the poet who was always communicating with warmth and feeling--even with strangers--was capable of profound, and often painful silence within the family. By piecing together a collage of his personal and family memories, and sifting through thousands of pages, of his father's daily writing and poems, Kim illuminates a fascinating and richly lived life.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Noteworthy American poet William Stafford (1914-93) wrote early in the morning, before the first light. His son, Kim, remembers this and much more in his vivid, affectionate memoir, which approaches its subject in anecdotal rather than linear fashion. Kim, director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon and himself the author of several books (A Thousand Friends of Rain; Having Everything Right), recalls his father's great love of his childhood home in Kansas, conscientious objector status during World War II, early days as a laborer, later days as a teacher, grueling work ethic, and approach to what he called "the great emergency of being alive." Stafford wrote poetry daily-some critics say he was too prolific-but, as revealed here, father and son shared other interests having nothing to do with writing. Kim's prose is poetic and lyrical, and he makes liberal use of excerpts from his father's poetry as a means of underscoring his own view of his father. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Robert L. Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Trinity University Press
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Read an Excerpt

Early Morning

Remembering My Father, William Stafford
By Kim Stafford

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2002 Kim Stafford
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55597-389-2

Chapter One

My Father's Place

A few days after my father died, I needed to sleep alone at the home place, to go back to the room I shared with my brother when we were young. Mother was away. I came to the house after dark, found the hidden key. In the home labyrinth, your feet know the way. Down the hall in the old garage, I turned into the study my father had built, where I stood a moment: dark walls, dim rows of books, papers on the desk, the making place. Then up two steps to the kitchen, a turn down the hall, and into the room of childhood.

For the fist time in years, I slept deeply from the moment I lay down - until I woke at around 4 A.M. Mother had told me that since his death she, too, had been wakened at my father's customary writing time. As I opened my eyes, the moon was shining through the bedroom window. The house was still, the neighborhood quiet. Something beckoned me to rise, a soft tug. Nothing mystical, just a habit to the place. Lines from a poem of his came to mind:

When you wake to the dream of now from night and its other dream, you carry day out of dark like a flame.

This beckoning before first light brought a hint from my father's life and I accepted it:

Your life you live by the light you find and follow it on as well as you can, carrying through darkness wherever you go your one little fire that will start again. - from "The Dream of Now"

I dressed and shuffled down the hall. In the kitchen, I remembered how my father would make a cup of instant coffee and some toast. Following his custom, I put the kettle on, sliced bread my mother had made, and marveled at how sharp my father had kept the knife. The plink of the spoon stirring the coffee was the only sound, then the scrape of a butter knife. My father's ritual pulled me on: I was to go to the couch and lie down with paper. I took the green mohair blanket from the closet, turned on the lamp, and settled in the horizontal place on the couch where my father had greeted ten thousand early mornings with his pen and paper. I put my head on the pillow where his head had worn through the silk lining and propped my notebook against my knees.

What should I write? There was no sign, only a feeling of generosity in the room. A streetlight brightened the curtain beside me, but the rest of the room was dark. I let my gaze rove the walls - the fireplace, the dim rectangle of a painting, the hooded box of the television cabinet, a table with magazines. It was all ordinary, at rest. In the dark of the house my father's death had become an empty bowl that filled from below, the stone cavern of a spring. I felt grief, and also abundance. Many people had written us, "Words cannot begin to express how we fell without Bill...." I, too, was sometimes mute with grief. But if my father had taught me one thing about writing, it was that words can begin to express how it is in hard times, especially if the words are relaxed, direct in their own plain ways.

I looked for a long time at the bouquet of sunflowers on the coffee table. I remembered sunflowers are the state flower of Kansas. I remembered my father's poem about yellow cars. I remembered how we had eaten the last of his summer plantings of green beans.

I thought back to my father's last poem, the one he wrote the day he died. He had begun with a line from an ordinary experience - a stray call from an insurance agent trying to track down what turned out to be a different William Stafford. The call had amused him, the agent's words had stayed with him. And that morning, 28 August 1993, he had begun to write:

"Are you Mr. William Stafford?"

"Yes, but...."

As he often did, he started his last poem with recent news from his own life before coming to deeper things. But I wasn't delving into his writing now. I was in the cell of his writing time, alive earlier than anyone, more alert in welcome, listening.

The house was so quiet I heard the tap of my heart, felt the sweetness of each breath and the easy exhalation. It seemed my eyes, as in one of my father's poems, had been "tapered for braille." The edge of the coffee table held a soft gleam from the streetlight. The stack of magazines was jostled where he had touched them. Then I saw how each sunflower had dropped a little constellation of pollen on the table. The pollen seemed to burn. The soft tug that had wakened me, the tug I still felt, wanted me awake to ordinary things, to sip my bitter coffee, to gaze about, and to wait. Another of his poems came to mind:

How still earth stayed that night at first when you didn't breathe. I couldn't believe how carefully moonlight came. - from "Letting You Go"

The way moonlight touched the curtain seemed to be instructing me how to breathe, to think, to wonder. My father had said once that time alone would allow anyone to go inward, in order to go outward. You had to go into yourself to find patterns bigger than your life.

I started to write ordinary things. Then I same to the sunflowers. This could be told wrong if I tried to hard. My father's way is not about trying, not about writing poems, not about achievement, certainly not fame. His way is being private before first light, with your breath, the scratch of the pen. His way is something like worn silk, a blanket, and that dusting of pollen from the sunflowers.

My head fit his dent in the pillow. My hand moved easily with the pen: Pause at the gate to take off the one big shoe of his body, step forward light as wind.

In the uninterrupted abundance of my own time, I finished a page, closed my notebook, and rose for the day. As my father would say at such a time, there was much to do but I had done the big thing already.

Who will take my father's place in the world of poetry? No one. Who will take his place in this daily practice of the language of the tribe? Anyone who wishes. He said once the field of writing will never be crowded - not because people can't do important work, but because they don't think they can. This way of writing is available to anyone who wishes to rise and listen, to put words together without fear of either failure or achievement. You wake. You find a stove where you make something warm. You have a light that leaves much of the room dark. You settle in a place you have worn with the friendly shape of your body. You receive your own breath, recollection, the blessings of your casual gaze. You address the wall, the table, and whatever stands this day for Kansas pollen.

"There's a thread you follow," my father wrote. Deep night, and early morning, my page of writing, pollen on the table - these were the filaments I would need in the work he left me.


Excerpted from Early Morning by Kim Stafford Copyright © 2002 by Kim Stafford . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Robert Bly
As a book written by a son warily loving an enigmatic, elusive father, this is a masterpiece.

Meet the Author

Kim Stafford has taught since 1979 at Lewis and Clark College, where he is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute and codirector of the documentary studies program. He also serves as the literary executor for the estate of William Stafford. He has worked as an oral historian, letterpress printer, editor, photographer, teacher, and visiting writer in communities and at colleges across the country, and in Italy, Scotland, and Bhutan. Stafford has published a dozen books of poetry and prose, including The Muses among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft; Having Everything Right: Essays of Place; and 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared. He has received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Oregon Governor’s Arts Award, and a Western States Book Award. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and children.

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