Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
What you seem to be, be really.”
– Benjamin Franklin,
Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1744
January 17th is the birthday of several American National Treasures:
January 17, 1706 – Benjamin Franklin born, American statesman-scientist-inventor-author-printer, U.S. ‘Founding Father.’ In 1723, at age 17, Franklin arrived in Philadelphia, to begin working in the printing trade. In 1731, he and members of the Junto Club – a group of artisans, tradesmen, and professionals – founded the Library Company, the first subscription lending library in the American colonies, to make books more accessible to people other than the very wealthy and clergymen. It was so successful that many other towns stared their own lending libraries. Franklin also started schools, which unusually for the time, did not include any religious instruction in their curriculum. One of his schools was an academy to train poor students to be teachers, which grew to be the University of Pennsylvania. He advocated for universal education, including educating women and African-Americans. In 1752, Benjamin Franklin flew a kite during a thunderstorm, and collected ambient electrical charge in a Leyden jar, enabling him to demonstrate the connection between lightning and electricity. A master of the pithy and memorable remark, he wrote: “Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.” – from Poor Richard’s Almanac, and “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
January 17, 1922 – Betty White born, American actress, TV personality, animal rights activist and national treasure. Her television career is considered the longest in entertainment history, spanning over 80 years. She was also one of the first women to have control both in front of and behind the camera, and is recognized as the first woman producer of a TV situation comedy series, Life with Elizabeth (1953-1955). White was also a trailblazing advocate for animal rights. She lived to be 99 years old, and died just a couple of weeks before her 100th birthday.
January 17, 1927 – Eartha Kitt born, American multi-talented performer, peace and civil rights activist, founder of a non-profit to help disadvantaged youths in Los Angeles. Her career in the U.S. took a nosedive in 1968, after Ladybird Johnson asked her about the Vietnam War and she made frank anti-war statements before the press; she was falsely branded as a “sadistic nymphomaniac” and other slanders in a CIA dossier (discovered in 1975) and blacklisted; she left the U.S to make a living in Europe and Asia. When she stepped in as a replacement in London’s West End production of the musical Follies, she stopped the show singing “I’m Still Here,”and made a triumphal return to the U.S starring on Broadway in Timbuktu! in 1978.
January 17, 1942 – Muhammad Ali born as Cassius Clay, 1960 Olympic gold medalist; first fighter to be World Heavyweight Boxing Champion three separate times (1964, 1973, 1978); philanthropist, humanitarian, and civil rights activist; 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. In 2016, the first International Mentoring Day was launched by the National Mentoring Partnership, in collaboration with the Muhammad Ali Center and Epicenter Community’s Mentoring for Change initiative to support and applaud mentors everywhere, raise awareness of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and honor the memory of Muhammad Ali.
January 17, 1964 – Michele Obama born, American lawyer, university administrator, and author. She became the first African-American First Lady (2009-2017). Her memoir, Becoming, had sold over 14 million copies worldwide by November 2020.
To this list, I would add a much less well-known name: William Stafford.
January 17, 1914 – William E. Stafford born, American poet and pacifist; his first major poetry collection, Traveling Through the Dark, won the 1963 National Book Award for Poetry; he was the 20th Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
William Stafford was born in Kansas, the eldest of three children. His father took him hunting and taught him trapping. By the time William was in his mid-teens, the Great Depression was forcing his family to move from town to town as his father searched for work. William helped out by delivering papers, working in sugar beet fields, raising vegetables, and as an electrician’s mate.
By 1941, Stafford was working toward a master’s degree in English, but he was drafted before he could get his degree. As a registered pacifist, he worked on projects assigned to conscientious objectors in Arkansas, California, and Illinois. He spent 1942 to 1946 in work camps where he was paid $2.50 per month for work fighting fires, on soil conservation, and building and maintaining roads and trails. In 1944, while in California, Stafford met and married Dorothy Frantz, a minister’s daughter.
Once in the 40’s
by William Stafford
We were alone one night on a long
road in Montana. This was in winter, a big
night, far to the stars. We had hitched,
my wife and I, and left our ride at
a crossing to go on. Tired and cold—but
brave—we trudged along. This, we said,
was our life, watched over, allowed to go
where we wanted. We said we’d come back some time
when we got rich. We’d leave the others and find
a night like this, whatever we had to give,
and no matter how far, to be so happy again.
“Once in the 40’s” from The Way It Is, © 1982, 1998 by the Estate of William Stafford – Greywolf Press
After the war, he briefly taught high school, then worked for a church relief organization, then returned to the University of Kansas to complete his master’s degree in 1947. His master’s thesis was a memoir of his time as a conscientious objector, which became his first prose publication, Down in My Heart.
In 1948, he began teaching at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where he remained until his retirement in 1980, with the exception of sabbaticals, including one to earn his Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1954, and another to serve as Poetry Consultant for the Library of Congress (1970-1971), now retitled United States Poet Laureate.
He wrote every day, but didn’t begin to publish his poetry until he was in his forties.
Traveling through the Dark
by William Stafford
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
“Traveling Through the Dark” from Traveling Through the Dark © 1962 by William Stafford – Harper & Row
While he has been compared to Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg, William Stafford’s poems are rooted in his Depression-era childhood, his love of nature, and his deeply-held belief in pacifism. A pragmatic idealist, he was well aware that our choices in life are often morally ambiguous at best.
Stafford wrote poems in a soft-spoken voice, poems that seem direct and simple, but seep into you and make your mind turn them over and over, finding something new with each turning.
A life-long pacifist, he called himself one of “the quiet of the land.”
A Ritual to Read to Each Other
by William Stafford
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
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.
“A Ritual to Read to Each Other” from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. © 1998 by William Stafford – Graywolf Press
The Way It Is
by William Stafford
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
“The Way It Is” from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, © 1994 by William Stafford – Graywolf Press
by William Stafford
We wondered what our walk should mean,
taking that un-march quietly;
the sun stared at our signs— “Thou shalt not kill.”
Men by a tavern said, “Those foreigners . . .”
to a woman with a fur, who turned away—
like an elevator going down, their look at us.
Along a curb, their signs lined across,
a picket line stopped and stared
the whole width of the street, at ours: “Unfair.”
Above our heads the sound truck blared—
by the park, under the autumn trees—
it said that love could fill the atmosphere:
Occur, slow the other fallout, unseen,
on islands everywhere—fallout, falling
unheard. We held our poster up to shade our eyes.
At the end we just walked away;
no one was there to tell us where to leave the signs.
“Peace Walk” from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, © 1994 by William Stafford – Graywolf Press
At the Bomb Testing Site
by William Stafford
At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense,
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.
It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.
There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.
“At the Bomb Testing Site” from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, © 1960 by William Stafford – Graywolf Press
by William Stafford
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
William Stafford died at age 79 at his home in Oregon on August 28, 1993. The morning of his death he had written a poem containing the lines,
‘You don’t have to
prove anything,’ my mother said. ‘Just be ready
for what God sends.’
Kim Stafford, who is also poet, and an essayist and teacher, is his father’s literary executor. In 2002, he published a memoir, Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford, after sifting through thousands of his father’s poems, often written on napkins, grocery receipts, and the backs of letters.