Birds Fly Here: Two Poems by William Stafford

William Stafford (photo by Kim Stafford) Source: Slow Muse
William Stafford (photo by Kim Stafford)

On Friday August 30th, just a few days ago, Ireland, the world really, lost a beloved poet. And just before that happened I was planning this post to remember possibly my most favorite American poet William Stafford, who passed away the same week, on August 28th twenty years ago. I cannot say there are many similarities in their work, but they both were remembered as kind and gracious. And I think both liked to appear simpler than they really were.

I was at university in the flatlands of central Indiana, missing my Pennsylvania hills when I found his collection An Oregon Message. And I devoured it. It’s sad to realize that now that we have access to things like Google Earth, it’s much harder (except for those few spots where you can only zoom in so far) to say as the title poem of the collection asserted:

. . . Those moon rockets
have missed millions of secret
places! . . .
There were those quizzical first moments when I had to turn my head sideways to figure out his syntax, but I came to love his words very quickly. He seemed to describe a way into his view of the world in his poem “Figuring Out How it is:”
How it tilts while you are thinking
and then you know. How it makes no difference
for a long time–then it does.

The text of the entire poem is hard to find online, buried in a larger academic text, but I think I’ll do a reading of it here soon. While a lot of his poems are searchable on the web, many are impossible to find, and you really should be heading to the library or local bookshop to pick up a few volumes of his poems for yourself. Not just the anthologies, though they are helpful for an overview. But there is really nothing like digging into a collection that a poet put together and specifically placed those poems in one grouping. It’s often a look into a time and place that individual poems only give you glimpses of, as through a knot-hole in the fence of a larger work.

Back to Indiana over 20 years ago. I was lonely, missing my new wife, our first child not yet born, missing my hills, and secret places in their hollows and valleys. Somehow this poet of the western US helped me feel less alone, helped me hold onto my sanity, avoid that pit of panic I was slipping toward. I got to hear one of his readings in my creative writing course, but I never got to meet him, or hear him read in person, and that’s a sad thought.
So instead, I share him with you, hoping you will find some similar moment of peace or recognition in this wise old man’s words.

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed — or were killed — on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

From The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems
Graywolf Press

Copyright 1975, 1998 Estate of William Stafford

For the text of “Your Life” from the October, 1987 edition of Poetry Magazine, click here.

15 Comments Add yours

  1. Editing Note: For now, I have fought with the coding in this post all that I care to. I have no idea why I cannot get the proper spacing right between paragraphs and block quotes. It seems to be something perhaps with this theme I am using. I’ve run into these little snags before, but I have never worked hours on a post and found myself still utterly flummoxed. I may try a face lift and a paid theme soon. My sincere apologies if the post looks a bit queer in your browser.


  2. slpmartin says:

    The layout looked good to me…enjoyed your readings.


    1. Thanks, Charles. I’m a tad bit of a perfectionist sometimes. 🙂


  3. ManicDdaily says:

    So so beautiful, David. Thank you so much. I am going to get one of his books – hopefully they have on Kindle. Just wonderful. k.


    1. I’m really glad you liked it. He’s my hero. 🙂


    2. ManicDdaily says:

      One is coming out on kindle – not yet. I could get a book! Will look. k.


  4. John says:

    It looks good on this end … everything seems spaced well.

    And, there are even really, really good readings too. 🙂


    1. I am glad it looks okay. Just not what I was trying to do exactly. Forgive my obsessing. And I’m really glad you liked them. I confess, I am quite fond of the The UN Memorial one.


  5. Cool poem by one of my favorite American poets. Don’t remember reading this one before.


    1. I’m really glad you enioyed it!


  6. Two lovely readings.

    I only know of Stafford through your blog; I’ll have to try and get hold of some of his work.

    ‘the field where grass joined hands,’ Exquisite.


    1. He did a lot of small collections so you should be able to find some things by him at a pretty cheap price. He’s best known, and most anthologized, it seems for his award winning “Traveling Through the Dark.” But he has so many little gems.


    2. Thanks. I’ll check it out.


  7. Jamie Dedes says:

    A nice homage. Yes! We have lost two fine poets at once. A sad thing, but their work still stands.

    Lovely reading as always and I appreciate the two you selected for this, David.

    Meanwhile, about poetry layout, you probably know this trick, but just in case – it all works better when you lay the poems into text and visual.


    1. I might not have made it clear that Stafford’s death was the same week as Heaney’s but twenty years prior.

      And yes, I have tried that, doing the images, but there is one downside to that, and that is that when people are using the internet search engines, and they cannot recall the title of the poem, they will type in a line or two of the text. That text cannot be read in an image file, so people searching for the poem might not as easily find your page if you use only an image of the text rather than the text itself. Search engines like Bing, Google and Yahoo like text almost as much as you and I, but they don’t read the images.

      I suppose if you were to copy the text into the description of the file that might also work, maybe, but that will also make the coding for the page that much longer, so I’m not sure that’s a solution either.

      Usually I can get it the way I want it to look. Often I am able to strip the text of excess coding by copying it into notepad (not wordpad, which has its own rich text coding like Word does), and then copy it into the post. But sometimes, like in this case, there were just too many conflicting codes perhaps and now that we’ve moved beyond basic html coding, I could not figure out which code was interfering with which. Ah well. Sometimes you just do the best you can.

      Thank you for all the reading and feedback, Jamie. I truly appreciate it!


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