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Party honors local ‘poet of place’

Fans celebrate the life of laureate William Stafford.

Northwest poet William Stafford might put to rest the shopworn Romantic notion that artists must suffer to produce great works and, better yet, suffer alone.

Far from an icy iconoclast, Stafford mentored thousands of poets during 45 years teaching at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. Happily married for five decades, Stafford raised four children while penning poems that filled 67 volumes.

He won prizes that included National Book Award and a Guggenheim, and a post as poet Consultant to the Library of Congress, now Poet Laureate of the United States.

Less quantifiable, but perhaps as notable, may be the devotion of students, friends and acquaintances, even readers who never met the man.

Island poet and physician Neil Baker, who organized a celebration of Stafford’s life and works to be held Jan. 27, was briefly introduced to the poet in 1992; he later found inspiration in Stafford’s words when Baker turned to writing himself.

“In 1995 I joined John Willson’s poetry class,” Baker said, “and found ‘You Must Revise Your life,’ essays about writing and reading poems. I just found it a very powerful piece of work... William Stafford gave this great sense of welcome to your words and stories, an invitation into the community of expression.”

Stafford invited local several poets into the “community of expression,” including such luminaries as Willson and John Davis, both Stafford’s students at Lewis and Clark.

“I had a seminar on Thomas Hardy with him, I remember him as a gentle person and very open,” Willson said. “He rode his bike to school every day. That impressed me, because the hill he rode up was very steep.”

After declining service in World War II as a conscientious objector, Stafford lost no time establishing a centered life that would sustain him through decades of writing; in 1944, he married Dorothy Hope Franz and the couple had four children. After earning a degree from University of Kansas at Lawrence, he joined the faculty of Lewis and Clark, where he stayed until his retirement in 1980.

Stafford rose daily at 4:30 a.m. to write, often completing a poem each day. He finished the last poem just hours before his death in 1993.

Baker, who held a private viewing of a taped interview with the poet on Stafford’s birthday last year, hopes that the public event this year will draw non-poets as well as writers.

“I think if you’re somewhat intimidated by poetry but have some interest, William Stafford is a great introduction,” he said.

“We’d like everyone to participate who’d like to, in the spirit of William Stafford.”

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Join in a birthday celebration in honor of poet William Stafford from 7:30-9 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Bainbridge Library. Local poets John Willson, Sue Hylen, John Davis, Laurie Greig, and David Stallings read works by Stafford and original poems; the audience is invited to bring a favorite William Stafford poem and experiences to share. Information: 842-4162. See Friends of William Stafford at www.wmstafford.org.

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