“Walking with Your Eyes Shut,” by William Stafford

Poet, Nickole Brown, reading on stage at eights avenue Queer Girl Lit.
Nickole Brown, photo by Kristin Shelly

This week the wonderful poet Nickole Brown was asking folks on social media for short, creative nonfiction pieces about sound for a class she is teaching on defamiliarization. I admit, I missed the acronym, CNF and was, as usual, thinking of poetry.

My mind went straight to a poem by William Stafford and my hands immediately reached for a favorite old paperback on my shelf. This tattered and stained copy of An Oregon Message has traveled with me from a bookstore in Indiana since, I think, about 1989. It was published in 87, and while I don’t know all the poems by heart, I do remember each by title, and I reread them from time to time.

I still vividly recall watching a video in Dr. Mary Brown’s class of Stafford reading his poem “Ask Me,” a piece I do know by heart and have recorded many times (look for the latest, upcoming soon). His poetry helped open my mind to what lines on a page can do, what vistas can be opened with minor alterations to diction and syntax. Cover image of William Stafford's book, An Oregon Message

For instance, in the poem “Ask Me” which begins with the iconic line, “Some time when the river is ice,” the poet says, “Ask me / mistakes I have made.” Not, “Ask me about,” or “ask me what mistakes,” but “Ask me / mistakes.”

That makes a reader stop, not because it’s incomprehensible, but because it varies a bit from the way we would expect the line to go. It slows us down and makes it difficult for our minds to remain on auto-pilot, slightly jostling our presuppositions about where the author is going with this statement.

That tendency of Stafford’s to place everyday language just off-center enough to make the line more vivid, the image fresh and new, was immediately more interesting to me than the deconstruction works I was reading for the first time then.

Rather than shatter the walnut of language into unnumbered pieces, sending meat and shell fragments alike skittering under furniture and into cracks in the floor, as it seemed the postmodernists were apt to do, Stafford chose to just crack the nut a little bit—and not always along the seam. This encouraged and tempted me to pry the rest open for myself. It was a revelation in what just a little non-conventionality in line endings, diction, and syntax could do. It was also a demonstration in the art of “less is more.”

Text of William Stafford's Poem Walking with your eyes shut

So, while it’s not what Nickole was looking for, she was gracious and sent me a “thank you.” Perhaps there is something there she can use. I was happy to be reminded of the poem, in any case.

It’s been a few months since I’ve uploaded any readings to YouTube or SoundCloud, so reading this again inspired me to sit down and record a few favorites, starting with this one.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. What a beautiful poem. Your reading of it was lovely. I need to read more of Stafford. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Deborah! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. You won’t regret reading more Stafford. He’s good for the soul and mind.


  2. Brian Dean Powers says:

    I can’t recall when I first encountered Stafford’s poems. It wasn’t in school. But when I did, they stood out for their plain language and challenging ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One of my faves that I need to revisit (this is third reminder of this need in a week).
    Love his plain language, and yet the amazing images he conjures up with it.
    You at the center of a “platter of sound”.
    Love that the bluejay has it’s own part of the day and

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Loved the poem and I loved your reading of it. You have a great poetry reading voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Anonymous says:

    I read this poem last night at a zoom coffee house. I wish I had listened to you read it first! I found it in the same book – I bought it at a used bookstore in Wisconsin. It had the old fashioned paper check out register in the front. Patrons had library numbers like: 221 and 327 A small Wisconsin library that managed to have this great book of poems. I loved what you said about how his use of words makes you slow down. I also read his poem “Yes” – a great poem for this sad time in our history. Anyhow – thanks for this post and poem.


  6. Margaret McKenzie says:

    Sorry, didn’t mean to be anonymous. I’m a really old lady and have never written on a blog before.


    1. Margaret,

      I am honored to have my blog be the one that got your first response! Thank you for those kind words and for bringing this recording back to my attention. I’ve just started to toy with recording software again, so I may be posting more in the future.
      I bet your reading was wonderful. All those recordings I did back them pale to me in the light of al these live readings people have been doing now. Thank you so much for reading and sharing that story. As a librarian, the card numbers part of your story was especially delightful too.


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