A Pacifist's Plainspoken Poetry All Things Considered ends its April poetry series with poet William Stafford, a pacifist who came of age between the two world wars. NPR contributor Henry Lyman, the longtime host of the public radio program Poems to a Listener, sat down with Stafford in 1990.

A Pacifist's Plainspoken Poetry

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As April comes to an end, so does our April poetry series. For the past month, we've been visiting the archives of Henry Lyman. For nearly 20 years, Lyman hosted a radio program called Poems to a Listener out of WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Henry Lyman took us back this month to his visits with poets Robert Francis, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yehuda Amichai, and James Baldwin.

In our final segment, he remembers a plainspoken poet, a self-proclaimed pacifist who called himself one of the quiet of the land.

HENRY LYMAN: When I visited William Stafford in 1990, I found a man with a face that looked beaten by weather. Maybe it all started in the river lands of Central Kansas, where Stafford grew up. He spoke of his deep connection to those rivers and how he used to go out camping as a boy along the banks of the Arkansas. Sometimes he went alone, sometimes with his father.

The river was company for them, Stafford told me, and they were company for the river. At night, they heard coyotes, and that was company for them, too, of a different sort.

Here's William Stafford in 1990 reading a poem called "Hearing the Song."

(Soundbite of 1990 interview)

Mr. WILLIAM STAFFORD (Poet): (Reading) My father said, "Listen." And that subtle song, coyote, came to us. We heard it together. The river slid by, its weight moving like oil. "It comes at night," he said. "Some people don't like it." "It sounds dark," I said, "like midnight, cold." His hand pressed my shoulder. "Just listen." That's how I first heard the song.

And when I'm writing, that's sort of the way I feel: just listen. I never hear it, you know, that coyote sound.

LYMAN: Of course, the sound of the coyote is wild…


LYMAN: …a rather frightening sound.

Mr. STAFFORD: Yeah, it's wild, and I'm - when I listen, I'm always imagining where they are and how many they are and what they're up to now. But it also sounds happy. It sounds congenial to me. (Makes coyote calls) And these things mean something. Tomorrow, we're having chicken - you know, something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYMAN: Some people don't like it.

Mr. STAFFORD: Some people don't like it. They don't like the song, and they won't like your song. And it doesn't make some people nervous. But my father, say, he presses my shoulder, he says, "Just listen. Just listen." And then I hear it with my father.

(Reading) Ask me. Sometime, when the river's ice, ask me mistakes I have made. Ask me whether what I've 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 the 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.

LYMAN: That was poet William Stafford reading to me at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon in 1990. William Stafford died in 1993.

ELLIOTT: To hear Henry Lyman's full interview with William Stafford as well as other segments from our series, visit our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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