Little Ways, Stafford, Wisdom and Poetry

American poet William Stafford (1914-1993)
American poet William Stafford (1914-1993) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So this poem, some might argue, goes against one of my carnal rules of poetry; don’t be teachy, or preachy. I honestly hate most philosophical poems, generally because they come off as either arrogant, or soulless and impersonal, and often all of the above. Other poems, in an effort to teach a lesson can turn me right off by being a pulpit rather than a research laboratory.

“No ideas but in things,” that motto from William Carlos Williams comes to mind. Shouldn’t we look to the world of our every day experience, and follow those things outwards in search of truth and beauty? There are no things in this poem. And just as there are no things, there is no apparent metaphor. Yet Stafford seems to get away with it, leaving me feeling humbled, and in touch with something true after reading it.

How did he do that? Any ideas? I’ve had this up on YouTube for a few days now, and I felt better after recording it. I had four good takes, and decided on the very first in the end. Several people told me already that they thought it was lovely. That word, lovely came up more than once. What do you think? Good poem? If so, why? How does he accomplish making me love this piece in spite of the fact that he seems to go against what I try to do as a poet? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and I’ll answer with my own thoughts on this. I think I’m figuring it out. He was a wise old trickster.

13 Replies to “Little Ways, Stafford, Wisdom and Poetry”

  1. My favorite thing about Stafford is the way the words and images subtly unfold for me long after the reading. (Yours, by the way, does this poem great justice.) There’s so much to “unpack” in his economy of words that usually dawns on me sometime later (maybe I’m just slow). I always consider these moments of realization as gifts.

    While I was thinking of how to say what I wanted to say, I got up and walked away from the computer, but the poem came with me, as did the ideas of luck and fortune / encourage and help and where wisdom and perhaps even self come into play.


    1. I agree. And especially when I was new to him, his diction, his syntax. It would take a while to let one of his poems sink in. I’m more used to his style now, but it’s still lovely, isn’t it, being let down slowly by degrees into a new idea. He’s very good at that, yes.


  2. I think you like it because he is not simply saying these words to make you think differently or change the way you feel. But it is simply a way of making one think. If wisdom is indeed having the right things in life, what are the right things? Is there a list of specific right things or is the criteria different for each person? These are questions that may not arise inside your average church, where the preacher is not saying things that provoke deep thought, merely things that just sound preachy in more ways than one. There is nothing wrong with this poem. I like it.


    1. You are so smart! Where did you get that from anyway? Yes, you just nailed it. The man is so clever. He does not explain what the things are that need to be right in one’s life, neither does he explain what he means by the extremely intriguing phrase, “the little ways that encourage good fortune.” There is so much left unsaid, so many more questions that arise because of his statements. When a poem says more than the ink on the page, and when it brings to mind productive questions, when it makes me think, well that’s another way of knowing that it did its job well.

      And how interesting it is to think about “good fortune” that way. I have not heard this concept spoken like this elsewhere, the idea that one has to be prepared for the good that may come your way. It’s not just blind luck, but for Stafford there are small ways in which we, with things right in our lives, are equipped to recognize opportunities and good fortune when it comes to our doors, or even ways that attract those good things to come to us.

      Yup, you nailed it. And for our readers, no, MP and I have not discussed this poem or this kind of poem before. 🙂 God, I love this place!


  3. It works like the old 1930s horror films–he gives you an outline, and your own imagination fills in the details. He gives us the space to add pictures from our own experiences and imaginations; anything that fits his outline will get the job done, will communicate his point. By giving us the outline without the details, he shows us the wisdom and beauty that are already in our minds and our lives.

    He is speaking the truth, something that resonates deeply with his readers. Writers who fail to produce the effect he does are often not speaking the truth in the same sense.


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