Posts Tagged ‘William Stafford’

We have reasons to be sad, but happiness cannot be pinned down, explains poet Naomi Shihab Nye

February 6, 2017

So Much Happiness is a beautiful poem by Naomi Shihab Nye (1952) from the same collection of selected poems, Words Under the Words, mentioned in the previous entry on her poem, Kindness.

naomi-shihab-nyeIn this video, Naomi explains how some poems are given to her, when she listens. The first poem, on happiness, came after she and her husband were married. The second poem, on kindness, came after an unsettling event took place on their honeymoon. They had been robbed while traveling on a bus in South America and lost everything. After she wrote the poem, help came in unexpected ways.*

Having both poems read by the poet in this grouping is special! Thanks to Pamela Robertson-Pearce who filmed Naomi Shihab Nye during her visit to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 2006, and to Neil Astley who posted the video for Bloodaxe Books.

One of Naomi’s favorite poets, and mine too, is William Stafford. He said this about her poetry: “In the current literary scene one of the most heartening influences is the work of Naomi Shihab Nye. Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insights. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.”

So Much Happiness

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records . . .

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye

*Read more about that incident in Spirituality&Health: The Incomparable Naomi Shihab Nye on Kindness.

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Failing eyesight or spiritual insight: a poet’s interpretation of a master artist’s vision

July 30, 2016

A previous post dealt with poets and artists who were Touched With Fire and created unusually beautiful works of art. Their poems and paintings were thought to be fueled by madness rather than a uniquely creative gift, possibly combined with a type of manic-depression.

Claude Monet "Water Lilies" (1906) Art Institute of Chicago (photo by Ryerson)

Claude Monet “Water Lilies” (1906) The Art Institute of Chicago
(Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection)

Here is a different twist on another kind of perceived abnormality. This poem’s title, Monet Refuses the Operation, leads the reader to believe that  Oscar-Claude Monet, founder of French Impressionism, was in need of an eye operation because of the way he painted.

But Nobel laureate Lisel Mueller gives us a different take on what may have been clinically diagnosed as failing eyesight due to cataracts, for the growth of a more profound spiritual vision—a ripened appreciation of nature, and a deeper more unified understanding of life.

Monet Refuses the Operation
By Lisel Mueller

Doctor, you say that there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Source: Second Language (Louisiana State University Press, 1996)

The cataracts did cloud Monet’s vision, and hindered his perception, but he had reached a level of mastery that allowed him to paint with his heart. In the words of The Little Prince, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Later in life, Monet had discovered a different way of seeing and created a new way of painting. Another poet, William Stafford, wrote about youth and the mature artist in You and Art. The poem describes, in his own unique way, this spiritual transformation that takes place later in life.

You and Art
By William Stafford

Your exact errors make a music
that nobody hears.
Your straying feet find the great dance,
walking alone.
And you live on a world where stumbling
always leads home.

Year after year fits over your face—
when there was youth, your talent
was youth;
later, you find your way by touch
where moss redeems the stone;

and you discover where music begins
before it makes any sound,
far in the mountains where canyons go
still as the always-falling, ever-new flakes of snow.

The ending of another poem by William Stafford reminds me of an expansion to infinity and the “blue vapor without end” in Something That Happens Right Now.

Here is a collection of some of Monet’s paintings.

Enjoy another beautiful poem by Lisel Mueller in this post: Lisel Mueller’s poetry offers us Hope.

Cellist and composer Daniel Sperry performs William Stafford’s poem, “The Way It Is”

December 7, 2015

This is my favorite poem by William Stafford—The Way It Is. I had found a verse from one of the Vedas that extends the theme in the poem to its ultimate conclusion and added it after his poem. I call the grouping uncommon thread … cosmic thread.

Besides this musical video of the poem by Daniel Austin Sperry, it is also available digitally on his new album: Cutting Loose ~ A Tribute To William Stafford. I’ve been listening to the CD and it’s beautiful! I’m ordering some as holiday gifts. You may want to as well.

You can order it on his website where he’s offering bulk discounts on a Five Pack and Ten Pack of CDs. For more videos and news follow him on Facebook.com/PoetrySandwich.

Enjoy other Stafford poems posted on The Uncarved Blog, some of which have also been recorded by Daniel Sperry like, William Stafford—You and Art, and the last poem he wrote the morning of the day he died: “Are you Mr. William Stafford?”

Daniel Sperry is an innovative, genre-stretching cellist, composer, and evocateur from Ashland, OR, who specializes in creating Musical Portraits for individuals as markers for special occasions and as gifts for loved ones. He performs all over the country in house concerts featuring these portraits, the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz and others along with his original music, opera arias, and standards.

See this wonderful video: Moments with Daniel Sperry: Cello in Lithia Park from Daniel Sperry on Vimeo. Read the Ashland Daily Times Article about Daniel in Lithia Park. Discover more about The Story of Daniel.

William Stafford’s last poem now seemed prophetic—an unintended literary epitaph

November 21, 2015

Below is the last poem William Stafford wrote in his Daily Writings, the morning of the day he died. He was 79 (Jan 17, 1914–Aug 28, 1993).

An unintended prophetic literary epitaph, you wonder if he knew on some deep level that his life was coming to a close?

In a way, the poem beautifully sums up his life as an awake poet, effortlessly creating (It was all easy) from the revelatory moment where, “For that instant, conceiving is knowing; the secret life in language reveals the very self of things.”*

Kim Stafford says a friend told him his father’s “imagination was tuned to the moment when epiphanies were just about to come into being.” Kim continues: At such a moment, ambition could be fatal to what we seek. Take a deep breath and wait. What seeks you may then appear.**

There is a reproduction of this poem in his own handwriting opposite the inside title of his posthumously published book, The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems, William Stafford, Graywolf Press (1999).

There was no title to the handwritten poem, just the date of the entry, 28 August 1993. It appears on page 46, and underneath the date is the title:

“Are you Mr. William Stafford?”

“Are you Mr. William Stafford?”
“Yes, but. . . .”

Well, it was yesterday.
Sunlight used to follow my hand.
And that’s when the strange siren-like sound flooded
over the horizon and rushed through the streets of our town.
That’s when sunlight came from behind
a rock and began to follow my hand.

“It’s for the best,” my mother said—”Nothing can
ever be wrong for anyone truly good.”
So later the sun settled back and the sound
faded and was gone. All along the streets every
house waited, white, blue, gray; trees
were still trying to arch as far as they could.

You can’t tell when strange things with meaning
will happen. I’m [still] here writing it down
just the way it was. “You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.

Well, it was yesterday. And the sun came,
Why
It came.

Listen to a beautiful musical rendition of this poem by Daniel Austin Sperry from his album: Cutting Loose ~ A Tribute To William Stafford. Follow him on Facebook.com/PoetrySandwich for updates and musical videos. Visit http://cellomansings.com. Buy the digital album online or email to order the CD cellomansings@gmail.com.

See William Stafford—The Way It Is, also recorded by Daniel Sperry, as well as William Stafford—You and Art. Enjoy other favorite Stafford poems posted on The Uncarved Blog.

*Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford, by Kim Stafford, Graywolf Press (2002), page 289, referencing his National Book Award Acceptance Speech.

**Ibid, page 136. “What seeks you may then appear” and in the poem, “Just be ready for what God sends” remind me of the ancient rishis, the Vedic seers who were so awake inside that they heard the Veda humming to itself within their own consciousness; they cognized the richas, the hymns of the Veda that sought them out.

That quality of wakefulness, innocence and readiness—a subtle receptivity to what may be given, or realized, is described in Rk Veda, 5.44.14: Yo jagara tam richa kamayante. He who is awake, the richas seek him out. (Peter Freund’s Favorite Sanskrit Expressions, page 3.)

See Maharishi Mahesh Yogi describe the process of Vedic cognition during a 1976 European symposium on Science and Consciousness: He Who Is Awake the Hymns Seek Him Out.

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Billy Collins suggests more creative ways to respond to poetry than analyzing it to death

March 18, 2015

The New York Times calls Billy Collins “the most popular poet in America.” In his poem, Introduction to Poetry, the former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003) suggests more creative ways to respond to poetry than analyzing it to death. This blog post also reveals how Collins writes and teaches poetry. It may surprise you.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

The Apple that Astonished Paris © 1988, 1996

Listen to Billy Collins read his poem, Introduction to Poetry.

Billy Collins speaks to English teachers in this poem who look at poetry as something to be analyzed and dissected. They teach their students to try to find out what a poem means instead of emotionally responding to it. To make his point, Collins amusingly suggests ways students might approach and experience a poem, instead of “beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.”

Writing and Teaching Poetry

Collins reveals more about his writing process and how he teaches poetry when answering a question from a middle school English teacher. He acknowledges the search for meaning in a poem, but when he writes a poem, meaning is the furthest thing on his mind. He’s just trying to get to the next line, and the next, to finally arrive at the ending.

Basically when you’re teaching poetry, despite that poem (Introduction to Poetry), you’re talking about meaning. We’re basically extracting meaning from the poem. And I realized at some point, that when I wrote a poem, meaning was the last thing on my mind. I never gave it a thought.

Basically, in a poem, I’m just trying to find the next line. I’m trying to find a way for the poem to go. And I’m trying to get to some destination. I’m not thinking about, ‘What’s the poem about, or meaning?’ Or, I’m not thinking of, ‘How will people write study questions about this poem and make any sense out of it?’

So I try to bring some of that into my teaching. I try to substitute for the question, ‘What does a poem mean?’ the question, ‘How does a poem go?’ ‘How does a poem get where its going?’ (It goes from the beginning to the end, maneuvering through shift points along the way, in search of a destination.) A poem is always searching for its own ending. And that’s what poets are thinking about. It’s not a search for insight, particularly. It’s a search to be over with.

PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown interviewed Billy Collins on their Poetry Series about his new collection, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems. “I knew that poets seemed to be miserable,” said Collins about his younger self, yearning to fit in. While he admits he “faked a miserable character” at the start of his career, he’s since embraced his sense of humor. Poet Billy Collins on humor, authenticity and ‘Aimless Love’

William Stafford on Writing Poetry

William Stafford was Poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1970, what a Poet Laureate was called before they created the office. He was named Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975-93. Stafford’s style of writing and teaching was process-oriented. He gave no praise or blame to his students’ writing. He encouraged English teachers and writing students to be innocent when writing poetry, without any preconceived notions of how it should go, and to be open to discovering the unexpected turns a poem could take on the way to its own completion.

Stafford was very open to spontaneity and receptivity when writing poetry. He said most teachers would spell out what a piece of writing should look like, and expected their students to reproduce the same. This product-oriented approach left no room for the imagination. “They want a wilderness with a map.” But, he asks, “how about errors that give a new start?” Errors, he said, “make a music that nobody hears. Your straying feet find the great dance,” and “stumbling always leads home.” That’s how he wrote poems, early every morning. Enjoy reading these William Stafford poems, A Course in Creative Writing, and You and Art.

My Own Experience as a Writer

I agree with Collins and Stafford that the creative process is a mystery, and coming to the end of a poem is a wonderful relief, especially when I see it finishing itself. It also surprises me with what it’s about, sometimes revealing a deeper meaning at the end than imagined. This meaningful sense of completion is why writing poetry can be so fulfilling.

Two early meta-poems describe this process: Writing—a poem on the writing process, and Sometimes Poetry Happens: a poem about the mystery of creativity. Two early poems I’d written that surprised me with their endings are, As Above So Below, and later, Pine Cone Trees.

My son Nathanael Chawkin wrote a poem called INSPIRATION, an outcome from the first homework assignment in his Grade Six Literature class. He felt strongly that you couldn’t force a student to write a poem; it had to come on its own accord. The poem innocently and profoundly expresses the spontaneity of the poetic process. I also added information with links after his poem about the writing process you may find interesting.

Update

Just added a part two: Billy Collins discusses the value of getting to the end of a poem and what can happen afterwards. Enjoy the poetic genius and humor of Billy Collins reading his poem “January in Paris” and Billy Collins humorously disagrees with Heraclitus showing how to go into the same water twice.

The Library of Congress Web Guides: Billy Collins: Online Resources.

Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human. ~ Mark Strand (1934–2014)

December 5, 2014

Mark Strand, former U.S. poet laureate (1990-1991) and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1999), felt strongly that writing and reading poetry could make us better human beings. “Poetry helps us imagine what it’s like to be human,” he said in an Inscape interview last year.

Percy Bysshe Shelley had famously said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” When Mark Strand was asked what he thought the function of poetry was in today’s society, he replied: “It’s not going to change the world, but I believe if every head of state and every government official spent an hour a day reading poetry we’d live in a much more humane and decent world. Poetry has a humanizing influence. Poetry delivers an inner life that is articulated to the reader.”

Indeed, especially if they were as transformed by poetry as Mark Strand, who wanted to feel himself “suddenly larger . . . in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment.”

Last week, one of my poet friends, Roger Pelizzari, emailed me about the passing of Mark Strand, and included a favorite poem of his, My Name. Roger included a link to an earlier Paris Review interview: Mark Strand, The Art of Poetry No. 77, with his friend Wallace Shawn, from which I’ve included interesting excerpts.

I was surprised and sorry to hear the news of Strand’s passing and checked the Paris Review for an update. I found Memoriam Mark Strand, 1934–2014, under The Daily by Dan Piepenbring, and sent it to Roger.

Media from around the world published Obituaries reviewing the Canadian-born, American poet’s accomplished literary career. The LA Times described Mark Strand as “a revelatory poet who addressed love and death in his poems, but in radically lyrical, revelatory ways.”

This poem is filled with the wonderment he sought, and seems a fitting memorial, prophetically written in the poet’s own magical words.

My Name

Once when the lawn was a golden green
and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials
in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed
with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass,
feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered
what I would become and where I would find myself,
and though I barely existed, I felt for an instant
that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard
my name as if for the first time, heard it the way
one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off
as though it belonged not to me but to the silence
from which it had come and to which it would go.

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A mysterious bird in this Wallace Stevens poem teaches us the wonder of just being our self

July 16, 2014

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Wallace Stevens

The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play

William Stafford in his poem, Just Thinking, also appreciates the value “of just being there.”

Canadian poet P.K. Page describes a phantom bird in This Heavy Craft.

INSPIRATION, a poem by Nathanael Chawkin

January 25, 2012

“Be patient, listen quietly, the writing will come. The voice of the writing will tell you what to do.” — Donald M. Murray, America’s writing teacher.

I came across a poem my son Nathanael wrote 20 years ago, a month after he turned eleven. A few weeks into the school year, his Grade Six teacher at Maharishi School gave the students a writing assignment. Their homework was to write a poem for class the next day. The pressure was on. I don’t recall much of the details, but I do remember Nathanael saying he had a problem with this. We discussed it. He felt strongly that you couldn’t force a poem into existence; it had to come naturally, from inspiration. I agreed and suggested he express that idea somehow in his poem. He was determined to send his teacher a message. What he wrote blew me away. He was inspired!

INSPIRATION

A poem comes naturally,
Not forced, not assigned, not sought for.
A poem should be inspired,
Not under pressure, surely not, for,
A poem is spontaneous, creative. How?
It is the nature of the poem to slip out.
That’s what you must allow.
So sit back and relax
For you must be patient,
And of course, do not rush.
A poem comes naturally,
Here it comes,
Hush.

© Nathanael Chawkin
September 24, 1991

This idea of allowing, even encouraging writing to come spontaneously reminds me of a poem written by William Stafford—A Course in Creative Writing, in response to educators at a conference expecting writing instructors to clearly spell out how and what their students should write, and by implication, to praise or blame them accordingly. This left no room for students, or their teachers, to express their own creativity, and no guidance to help them find their own voice, something that was not part of their methodology.

Stafford was about process, not necessarily product, and acted more as a facilitator than an instructor. He tried hard to not offer any praise or blame, fearing students would then write to please him and not themselves. He also avoided giving students any grades in his classes. I think they would grade themselves or each other based on their evaluation of their work. You can imagine the frustration this must have caused the administration. He was considered an odd ball, a heretic to the status quo at that time. But that would change. His approach would start a revolution in the teaching of creative writing.

This poem, William Stafford—You and Art, speaks volumes about the writer who is open to “making mistakes” and following his own voice down new paths of expression. It’s a beautiful description of the maturation of an artist and the source of inspiration. You can read more William Stafford poems on my blog.

Another great exponent of teaching writing was Donald M. Murray.  A journalist, Murray was invited to teach journalism at the University of New Hampshire. He admittedly knew nothing about teaching, but was obviously an accomplished writer, having won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1954 at the age of 29. So he looked to his own process as a writer and broke it down into the different stages he would go through to end up with a polished piece of writing.

One of Murray’s earliest books, Learning By Teaching, is a selection of articles on writing and teaching. It’s filled with examples of the steps he would go through as a writer, writing and rewriting to gain clarity; the stages of teaching he evolved through, from lecturer, to modeler, to facilitator, to getting out of the way; and quotes about writing by other writers. We used it as our textbook in a workshop to become writing facilitators. We learned how to conduct writing conferences to help students with their writing. The course taught me a lot about the craft of writing, the different stages, from pre-writing, to draft, to rewriting, editing, to final draft, and the teaching of it.

A comprehensive book on Murray and his work was published October 2009 by Heinemann: The Essential Don Murray: Lessons From America’s Greatest Writing Teacher. I love the opening quote from the book’s press release: New book offers lessons from writing teacher Don Murray. It affirms my son’s sentiment: “Be patient, listen quietly, the writing will come. The voice of the writing will tell you what to do.” — Don Murray.

Murray helped Donald Graves with his writing. Graves started a revolution by watching how young children wrote in school. He brought what he had learned from Murray into the classroom and taught teachers how to become writers themselves, then how to apply this approach with their students. Read this excellent article by Kimberly Swick Slover about Graves called The Write Way. It also mentions how Murray turned him into a writer. Same thing in this excellent video interview with Donald H. Graves and Penny Kittle.

Now creative writing classes are student-centered and process-oriented, with teachers openly modeling their own process as writers, and facilitating students to do the same, allowing and enabling them to become genuine writers, from draft to publication.

Although I never had the opportunity to meet or study with either Murray or Stafford, both were seminal influences. They acted as a guide from the side, not a sage from the stage. They taught about writing as writers and poets in classes, workshops, and through their articles, interviews, books and poems. I thank them for helping me, and thousands of other writers and teachers, to better understand the writing process.

Here is one of my first poems on the subject, Writing—a poem on the writing process. After the poem, I add a short piece about Murray and Stafford. I would share these poems and thoughts with Nathanael. It seemed to have gone deeply into him. Like father, like son.

Other inspiring posts about writing are: Writers on Writing–What Writing Means To Writers, Elizabeth Gilbert—Some Thoughts On Writing, and Words of Wisdom on Writing from Literary Lights. You may also enjoy Burghild Nina Holzer inspires us to write and discover who we are and what we have to say.

Also see A Tanka about my son’s Aikido teacher.

Writing—a poem on the writing process

January 18, 2011

Writing

Writing is a series of letting go’s
of our preconceived notions of how it goes
and allowing a deeper part of you to tell you what it knows;
when the writing’s good, it shows.

Because, ultimately, when we do,
that recognition of what’s true,
comes from the deepest part of you.

So let the writing speak to itself,
and let the writer listen, for

writing is listening on paper.

© Ken Chawkin

Also see Storytelling—a poem on the storytelling process

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PEACEFUL POETS: Filmmaker Haydn Reiss on Rumi and Stafford and the Power of Words

December 9, 2009

Haydn Reiss on Rumi & Stafford

Two Documentaries on Poets of Peace

BY TONY ELLIS

Filmmaker Haydn Reiss

The moral dilemma most often thrust in the face of those who oppose war goes something like this: What would you do if the lives of your loved ones were being threatened right in front of you? Would you not grab any weapon available in order to protect them? So why not fight to defend your country?

National Book Award-winning poet and World War II conscientious objector William Stafford (1914-1993) wrote in his journal: “The question, ‘Wouldn’t you fight for your country?’ begs the real question which is, ‘What is the best way to behave here and now to serve your country?’ So the real answer would be, ‘If it was the right thing to do, I would fight for my country. Now let’s talk about, what is the right thing to do?’ ”

This was one of the quandaries I discussed recently on the phone with Haydn Reiss, producer and director of Every War Has Two Losers: A Poet’s Meditation on Peace, a thoughtful and beautifully crafted documentary based on the writings of Stafford, and Rumi: Poet of the Heart, a previous work about the life of the Sufi mystic poet. Both films feature comments from a number of well-known poets, writers, and thinkers, including Robert Bly, Coleman Barks, Michael Meade, Alice Walker, Huston Smith and Deepak Chopra.

Reiss, a self-confessed “producer for hire,” has been involved in a range of visual media from Hollywood features (JFK and Jacob’s Ladder) to TV shows, but it is obvious his real passion lies in his work about these two poetic masters, separated in time by more than 700 years, and the potential of their words to move the hearts and minds of men away from conflict.

Reiss believes Stafford, like many of his fellow conscientious objectors, was no starry-eyed idealist. He accepted that conflict is always a possibility in the course of human affairs, says Reiss. But Stafford didn’t believe war was inevitable or even advisable. In Stafford’s view the consequences of war are rarely, if ever, beneficial to humanity. He encouraged everyone to consider the motives of those who urge us to war before getting caught up in the fever of victory. “How do we know war is the answer?” asks Stafford in his journal. “How can there be a nation we don’t like? That’s a fiction put onto a million different people. It has been created by interests you might well do to analyze.”

“It would be very satisfying to think,” says Reiss in an interview on the film’s website, “that after viewing the film you would ask yourself, at a deep level, what you really believe about war. And the follow-up question of ‘How did I come to believe that?’ ”

“I think we have been very successfully indoctrinated into accepting that war is a given, it’s what human beings do,” Reiss continues. “The distinction is, and I think this is what Stafford is saying, is ‘Yes, we do and can make war. But what else can we do?’ The undiscovered possibilities in human behavior are what we should pursue. The die is not cast; imagination and creativity are not in short supply. That this is the real, pragmatic work of the world.”

We live in such a culture of violence that sometimes it is hard to imagine how the actions or words of one person can be heard above all the clatter. Stafford believed peace is achieved gradually, created one person, one small step at a time. “Artists and peacemakers are in it for the long haul,” Stafford writes in his journal. “Redemption comes with care. Here’s how to count the people who are ready to do right: 1 . . . 1. . . 1.”

His chosen medium was poetry. In a poem entitled “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” composed in Iowa City on June 23, 1953, he wrote:

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

In Every War Has Two Losers, Stafford’s friend Michael Meade comments, “Something very deep in the human heart wants beauty, love, and relatedness more than it wants destruction, war and violence.” This theme is further explored in Rumi: Poet of the Heart, a tender and insightful portrayal of the life and work of Sufism’s most cherished poet. Reiss is a big believer in the power of poetry to take us to deeper understanding. “It’s alchemical,” he tells me, and quotes from William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem”: “I give you the end of a golden string, only wind it in a ball, it will lead in at Heaven’s gate built in Jerusalem’s wall,” a theme I discovered Stafford often used in his lectures. “Poetry can take us to a place where nations and newspapers are not so important as what is happening out in the fields and the birds and the wind,” says poet Coleman Barks in the film. His soulful translations of Rumi’s poems have made them famous worldwide. Deepak Chopra suggests that if more poetry was read to children we could substantially change the world for the better.

Stafford wrote a poem a day after rising before dawn and spending time in contemplation and reflection. “I have an appetite for finding the perfect language to describe the experience of life you’re having right now,” he once said. “Every now and then I break off a piece of that and call it a poem.” Rumi poured out thousands of lines of exquisite verse as he struggled to deal with the devastating loss of his friend and mentor, Shams of Tabriz.

“Rumi’s poetry emerged from grief, which we do our utmost to avoid,” comments Robert Bly when interviewed. It is as if his heart, in being broken open, became a container for an immense divine love. “I am so small I can barely be seen,” wrote Rumi. “How can this great love be inside of me?”

Rumi’s message of love described by Rumi: Poet of the Heart is so profound and essential it has the power to touch the soul within each of us. “Everyone loves Rumi. He has no enemies,” someone comments in Reiss’s film. “I fly with Rumi. I forget I am on the earth,” says another. It is a wonderful and revealing irony that in this time of widespread “Islamophobia,” Rumi, an Islamic mystic, should be the best-selling poet in America. He touches a universal nerve. The lesson to learn is this: if we can reach into our hearts and see the world through the eyes of a poet like Rumi, we can form bonds that unite us, whatever our culture or religion. Peace is the natural by-product of this experience. War, on the other hand, thrives on fear and division. “If loving everyone is too much to ask,” says Reiss, paraphrasing Kurt Vonnegut, “at least we should respect each other and maybe occasionally it will turn into love.”

“Love is the religion. The universe is the book,” says Coleman Barks, quoting a Sufi master. Stafford wrote on behalf of “the unknown good in our enemies,” comments one of his friends in the film.

Can the actions of one individual or a few well-chosen words really make a difference in this large chaotic world? Reiss believes so. On the website for Every War has Two Losers, he includes this quote from Stafford: “Every thought re-orders the universe.” And at the end of our conversation, he passes on this gem of wisdom from folksinger Pete Seeger. Seeger would say that life is like a seesaw and each of us is a grain of sand. It’s important which side of the seesaw you put your grain of sand. You never know which grain will be the one that tips it in the right direction.

Haydn Reiss will be visiting Iowa in spring 2010. Watch for upcoming announcements of his talk and film screenings.

For more information on both films and to watch trailers, visit www.rumipoet.com for Rumi, and www.everywar.com for Stafford.

To read more of William Stafford’s writings visit http://williamstaffordarchives.org/.

Tony Ellis is a Fairfield-based writer and poet. He blogs regularly at www.iowasource.com. To read more of his work, visit www.tonyellis.com. This article appears as the cover story of the December 2009 issue.

Also see Every War Has Two Losers, a Haydn Reiss film on poet and conscientious objector William Stafford and A Fascinating Approach to Peace.


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