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The Wisdom of William Stafford

Talk to Strangers

by ROBERT DAY

At the Library of Congress in 1994 there was a tribute to William Stafford, the American poet who, in 1970, had been what is now called the poet laureate of the United States. There were the usual accolades: Bill Stafford was a poet whose plain language fitted his flatland Kansas sensibility. His poems were gifts to all Americans, not just to other poets or professors of literature.

There were other kind words: About the self-evident and the oblique stories in his poems. About those poems’ gifted reticence. Then something extraordinary was said. One of his children, his daughter Kit, I think, told us of her father’s repeated advice to them as they were growing up: "Talk to strangers."

Not far from where I live when in Kansas, and about the same distance from where Bill Stafford grew up, there is a high school in a town of about a thousand that has a video security system of which they are especially proud. I had been asked to be part of a literary program there, and I noticed the surveillance camera in the room we used. Later I saw the black-and-white glow of monitors in the school’s office. I watched pictures of the gymnasium (empty this autumn Saturday), various hallways (also empty), our meeting room (adults milling around drinking coffee), and finally an outside shot: the wide prairie as background, a small Kansas town in the foreground.

One of the school’s officials and a parent stopped to say that you couldn’t be too careful these days, what with Columbine and Amber Alert. Bad things happen in schools. And out of schools. Better to be vigilant than sorry. When they left, I could see them on the monitors as they walked across the lawn. They talked for a moment over the bed of a pickup truck and then drove off — safe, I suppose, in the knowledge that someone might have been watching them.

I was Bill Stafford’s student because I learned from him about writing and life: Do it all and do it all now. The beginning may not be the beginning. The end may not be the end. These aphorisms applied not only to his craft and mine, but to the way we lived.

Over the years we wrote back and forth: letters, postcards, copies of our work. As he was one of the most prolific American poets of the 20th century, I got plenty more of the latter than he did. No matter how far apart we were, Bill in Oregon and me in Kansas or in Europe, he would sign off with "Adios" or "Cheers." Then, as if we were just across the pasture, he’d add: "Stop on by." My feeling now is that when I’d get to him, a little windblown and dusty from the walk over, he’d want to know if I’d met any strangers on the way, and what stories they had to tell.

What kind of America have we become when it seems stupid to give the same advice to our children that Bill Stafford gave his? Talk to strangers? Have we come to believe that surveillance cameras in the high schools of tiny towns are necessary to teach our students the eternal vigilance they’ll need to live in towns beyond their own? Or in their own? What with Columbine and Amber Alert. Or would we be better off to listen to Bill Stafford from his poem "Holcomb, Kansas"?

Now the wide country has gone sober again.
The river talks all through the night, proving
its gravel. The valley climbs back into its hammock
below the mountains and becomes again only what
it is: night lights on farms make little blue domes
above them, bring pools for the stars; again
people can visit each other, talk easily,
deal with real killers only when they come.

Unless, of course, we have all become real killers.

There may be no reclaiming Bill Stafford’s vision of’ America, but don’t you remember that once upon a time, in his plain voice, he spoke for you?

ROBERT DAY is the author of the novel "The Last Cattle Drive." He teaches at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., and is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, in Salina, Kansas.