By Renée Ruderman
I love many of William Stafford’s poems, and it’s his modesty, quiet strength, and sharp eye that sometimes fuel the moods of my poems. I often use the following memory prompt for my own work and that of my students. It’s from the book, William Stafford: Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer’s Vocation, edited by Merchant and Wixon.
“Think of something that happened when you were younger – what occurs to you will occur for some reason. Let that reason take over the way you remember and the part of the experience you begin to set down. If your impulses carry you into distortions of the actual experience, indulge those impulses – let the memory become the way it wants to become, and the way language begins to suggest that it become.”
This prompt gently pushes writing forward and then into depth. Here’s how. Stafford begins in the mind, “Think of something…” and allows the remembering to seek its own subject. Writers might still be in the “reason”ing portion of their brain. But the poet is beginning to let loose, wiggling the connections between left and right brain.
But then Stafford uses the words, “If your impulses carry you…” and I love how that hopeful “If” allows the writer to inveigle temptations before Stafford writes, “…into distortions of the actual experience…” Stafford has plenty of experience with the trickery of memory, and knows that the writer understands that “distortions” can add the deeper grains of remembrance, moving the poem into more fertile soil.
And then Stafford gives us an order, “…indulge those impulses…” Great. Stafford wants us to go there and stay awhile. Stay with the wildness of the irrational, the imagination. And language, that versatile tool, takes that memory and creates the result. This exercise in losing control, then regaining it, makes poetry happen for both students and me. It is often a surprise.