Stafford, The Way It Is

This is the first book I have finished for My Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Sara picked this book up at the lovely Defunct Books in Iowa City. It is a nice used book store that sits atop The Red Avocado vegan restaurant. Two great places in such proximity!

At 268 pages, there are a lot of poems in this book, which cover a 36-year publication history (1960-1996). It even includes the poem he wrote on the day he died.

I quite enjoyed this book, copied out several poems and a handful or two of great lines to use as prompts, read several to Sara, and generally pondered what Mr. William Stafford was like as a human being.

The one possible drawback to these poems is that there are simply too many of them to digest at once. The reader can discern one or more minor shifts in Stafford’s work across time* which makes it a bit more difficult to get a grasp on him at any specific time. But honestly, this is a very small thing as his shifts are never very large and have more to do with his moving across parts of the country and with the normal shifts in theme and voice that a poet encounters as they age.

These poems accompany one as well as would a wise, world-observant, loquacious, and avuncular (but frequently solitary) companion who knows how to give one all the space and time one needs to grow just as wise and world-observant. He never gets in your way, never obstructs your view, doesn’t tell you what to think or even what to observe. The Way It Is is not a prescription but a description, and it winds its way through the whole volume and not simply the single short poem that bears that title. In fact, lines and phrases quite similar to “the way it is” are peppered throughout the poems of this volume.

Love, the land, family, community, death, aging, historical events, nature, academia, and writing are only some of the many topics of these hundreds of poems.

In many ways I wish that I had taken a bit more time with these poems, that I had let them sink in more. Although, I am envisioning rereading them in the not-so-distant future as a one-poem-a-day meditation over the course of a year plus (there are approx. 400 poems). My version of a bible chapter a day, if you will.

*My biggest gripe with this book is its arrangement. The approximately 400 poems were selected from “some three thousand poems published by William Stafford in either journals or in the sixty-seven volumes from West of Your City (1960) to Even in Quiet Places (1996), and from the poet’s Daily Writings, with special attention to those of the last year of his life” (253). Great so far, but then:

“The volume is organized as follows: recent poems in the first section; a second section selected from the six volumes collected by HarperCollins in Stories That Could Be True (1977); a third section of poems published by other publishers, mostly in limited editions; and a fourth section selected from the poet’s last three HarperCollins volumes, A Glass Face in the Rain, An Oregon Message, and Passwords” (253).

Who does that kind of crap? Oh, yes. Poetry editors. Idiots! To show you the order in which I read these poems, as chronological as possible, here is the listing we constructed to do so:

p. 60 1960
p. 77 1962
p. 103 1966
p. 120 1970
p. 131 1973
p. 49 1977
p. 187 1982
p. 149 1983
p. 208 1987
p. 231 1991
p. 155 1992
p. 177 1980-1993
p. 3 1992
p. 24 1993
p. 166 1996

Simply astonishing!

All arrangement issues aside, I truly enjoyed this book and look forward to revisiting it and more of William Stafford’s work.

William Stafford at The Poetry Foundation

I will leave you with an excerpt from “An Afternoon in the Stacks”

…. When this book ends
I will pull it inside-out like a sock
and throw it back in the library. But the rumor
of it will haunt all that follows in my life.

The Way It Is (235)

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 1

[Minor edit: 24 November 2011 to add links to Helen’s posts at her blog.]

Over two months ago, I dreamed up a reading challenge, My Two-Thirds Book Challenge, after finishing another over the previous year. The new one began on October 1st.

So far, four people have joined me: 3 friends, E, Helen, and Jen, and my wife. This post will serve as the pointer to everyone’s lists and as the first reading update.

E – 2/3 Reading Challenge

E has listed 10 titles and has given herself 5 wild cards. Thus, she hopes to read 10 books. She got off to a quick start having finished one book and posting a review within the first month.

2/3 Book Challenge: Netherland

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

This is a book that E could neither put down, nor can stop thinking about. With 9/11 serving as a background, it is, she says, both a story of the American Dream, and one of “finding connection, finding home.” She writes:

One respondent to The New Yorker’s 9/11 project wrote that Netherland “seems to capture with great poignancy that powerful sense that a certain kind of world has slipped away.” This summarizes the book better than I possibly can. It’s wonderful and wonderfully written, full of sadness and loss and exploration.

Helen’s goodreads shelf

Helen is the most ambitious of us, at least publicly ambitious, with 75 titles on her list.

She appears to have finished one book so far.

The Believer’s Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer

I think she is going to post her reviews on her blog, Highway to Helen, but for now I am linking to her review at goodreads. [My Two-Thirds Book Challenge – Intro and My Two-Thirds Book Challenge – Book 1 added: 24 November 2011]

Helen gave it 3 of 5 stars and writes that: “I loved the first half, which explained in layman’s details how the human brain seeks patterns and forms beliefs in all kinds of things.” But, sadly, the second half focused “entirely on theories relating to cosmology and origins of the universe,” which seems to have left the subtitle a little overambitious and the text itself a little narrower than advertised.

Jen – 2/3 book challenge

I am unsure exactly how many books are on Jen’s list (13, I think), but that is perfectly OK as I told her that I am keeping this low-key. Nor is this a contest in any way, but simply a challenge to personally motivate the individual reader.

Jen has read two books so far and has short reviews at her post with her list.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak:

While slow at first, I ended up adoring this book. Set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death, the book centers around a young girl and the family that has taken her in. At times funny and, of course, quite sad, it’s a wonderful ride and an interesting perspective.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery:

I bought this book while in Seattle based on a reader review that was posted with it. The book lived up to the review and I devoured it on my flights home. Like the reviewer, I found myself getting unashamedly teary-eyed while on a flight surrounded by strangers. A secretly intelligent concierge and a young suicidal girl who lives in the building both have life-changing experiences when a new tenant from Japan arrives. A lame review, but I’m worried about giving up too much. I finished this book a couple of weeks ago and the characters still come to mind and I wonder how they’re doing.

Sara – Two-Thirds Book Challenge

Sara’s list is even squishier than Jen’s. She is pursuing themes instead of specific titles as she has learned that if she doesn’t get around to reading a book she put on a list within 6 weeks or so then it will not get read. Her themes are: Creativity, Language, Writing, Erudition, Tech, and Fiction; and, she has links to her shelves at goodreads with possibilities within each theme at her post.

Mark (me) – My Two-Thirds Book Challenge

I have 30 titles on my challenge shelf at goodreads. I will, of course, read many more than 30 books over the next year. Since the challenge began I have read and finished 9 books and have begun 5 books which I am still reading. Three of those in process books are from my challenge list: Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Stafford’s The Way It Is, and Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. None of the finished books, though, are from my list.

My books are also divided into themes but, in my case, that division is a post hoc grouping after the titles were selected.

Pale Fire – Sara suggested I read the poem first and then go back and reread the poem along with its commentary. I have read the poem all the way through, and did so within the first few days of the challenge beginning, but now need to go back and reread/read the book in its entirety.

Hero with a Thousand Faces – I am a little over halfway through with this. It is somewhat slow going as I can only stomach so much of the psychoanalytic mumbo jumbo. Also, Campbell’s writing in some sections is crystal clear and in others it is as murky as can be. The murkier sections tend to dampen my enthusiasm for reading it. I wanted to read it during the fall semester, though, as it ties in well with my Classical Lit and Mythology class that I’m taking. The class is, well, myth and our text book authors also stress the psychoanalytic interpretations.

The Way It Is – I am at least 7/8 or so done with this. It is hard to say as it is one of those poetry collections that some editor decides is best in whatever whacky arrangement they’ve dreamed up instead of simply in the order in which were poems were published. As I chose to read them in chronological order, I have to jump around the book a lot, by and within sections, and that makes it difficult to know exactly how far I am.

Future Updates

I hope to get a bit more regular and have monthly updates. With any luck they will be posted within the first 10 days of each month. I know that E has a few things read to post reviews of, and I will certainly finish Stafford very soon and post a review.

If anyone still wants to join us make a list somewhere, in some form, that contains a smattering of things which you think you can finish 2/3rds (or more) of between October 1st 2011 and September 30th 2012 and post your reviews somewhere. Of course, let me know where this happens so I can add to you to our monthly updates.

Good reading to you all!

Further adventures in education at BCU

Registration time is soon upon us at BCU. This time it will be for J-Term (January 3-20) and Spring semester. I am open to any feedback you might have but here is what I am considering for both. Descriptions, where provided, are from my discussion with the profs—trying to take notes while also being courteous and having a discussion; thus, minimal and gappy.


Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Dr. Jeanne Emmons. I am taking this. It will be conducted much like the 1st class I took with Jeanne, Madwomen Poets. All but 2 of my classes so far have been with Jeanne. I am really excited to read and discuss Grimm’s.

Briar Cliff Review with Dr. Tricia Currans-Sheehan. Putting the magazine together. Along with a partner would get 3 or so stories to shepherd through fully to print (proofing, author contact if necessary, writing author bio, etc).

I could take this for a credit but Why? I am in this class right now helping with the editorial selection of the fiction (primarily), nonfiction and poetry, so I will sit in and help with shepherding next year’s issue through to the final stages.

Both of these classes are 5 days a week for those 2 weeks.

Spring Semester

Studies in British Literature with Dr. Adam Frisch. (Meets 1/25-2/24 only) Is actually history of theory/criticism. Who knows why the Registrar lists it as such? Plato/Aristotle > Roman > Renaissance > Enlightenment > 19th c > Tolstoy > assorted 20th c. theories. About half of course pre-20th c. and half on the 20th c. Assignments/Grade: Class discussion & Final.

I am probably going to audit this as I have been interested in theories of lit crit for a while now. Just what is it that makes something “good” and how has that changed across time? It will be a whirlwind tour (4 weeks) but that’s OK as I assume I will be pointed at things I want to explore in more depth, and those that I don’t will be gone before I know it.

Studies in Contemporary Literature with Dr. Jeanne Emmons. Meets 1/24-4/10 only. Seminar-style. Literature from the last 3 years, primarily from lit mags, selected by students. Assignments/Grade: Class discussion & write responses as to which is best & why/evaluation.

This sounds interesting; although, primarily because I am already making these sorts of judgements with the reviewing process for the Briar Cliff Review. I am really not all that interested in contemporary lit and I have had several courses with Jeanne already. I do really like her as a prof but I need to experience some of our other profs, too. And, honestly, I wonder about the readiness of my fellow students for a seminar, which is my favorite kind of course. If I took it I would audit it.

Intro to Literature with Dr. Matthew Pangborn. Vocabulary of literary criticism. Exposure to a bit from each genre. Use of quotations in English/Writing papers (rhetorically, & mechanics of). There was more but I was trying to converse and not focus on note taking so much as it is the stuff that makes up an Intro to Lit course. Did not ask what the grade will consist of.

I would like to take this as I have not had any of this. Certainly I am aware—well aware in some cases—of many of the concepts that constitute the fundamentals of literature from almost 50 years of reading and over 25 years spent in higher ed. but I still feel that a better, more formal, grounding in them would serve me well. If I take this I will audit it.

Enlightenment Literature with Dr. Matthew Pangborn. British & American lit. Satires (Swift/Pope) > Franklin > poetry > novels > Crusoe (sections) > Walpole (Castle of Otranto) > Comedy. Enlightenment values; their influence on the US founders. Did not ask what the grade will consist of; assuming paper, midterm and final probably.

It is pretty much a given at this point that I am taking this class for credit. Things could change but I don’t expect them to. Some of what Matthew mentioned I have already read (and love) and most of the rest I have wanted to read. I am also highly interested in the Enlightenment. Matthew is new to BCU but I have heard only great things so far.

British Romanticism with Dr. Adam Frisch. ~1800 until just pre-Victorian era. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Blake, The Blue Stockings, Frankenstein, some prose & poetry. Shift from collective to individual. Assignments/Grade: Paper, Midterm, Final.

I would love to audit this class with Adam but, for now, think I would be better served by taking his lit crit/theory course. Plus, that would be over in four weeks and I’d be able to concentrate on Enlightenment Lit since I’ll be taking it for a grade.

Intro to Theatre with Dr. Jenna Soleo-Shanks. I didn’t take any notes in my discussion with Jenna but I have a feel. She also showed me textbook. If I took this it would also be an audit. I have been to a fair few plays by now but I really have no idea how it all “works,” or of theater’s history, criticism, etc.


As a friend pointed out, I can probably live without the Intro courses. I agree but also feel that my appreciation for these art forms would deepen by formally broadening my education and, thus, knowledge of them. While it is the sort of knowledge one can easily pick up from assorted sources, I know that sitting in a class is, in many ways, best for my lazy self if I truly want to get around to it.

As it stands, I am fairly certain that I will take Enlightenment Lit for credit and will audit the Lit Crit/Theory class.

Thoughts? Concerns? Recommendations? Registration opens next week.