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J. R U S S E L L R O B E R T S , SR. Pacific University Listening to the Wilderness With William Stafford* “I could hear the wilderness listen,” wrote Stafford in the title poem of Traveling Through the Dark. Again and again in Stafford’s poetry we hear the wilderness; though it utters no word to him, he feels its presence with eyes and ears specially attuned by sympathies, inherent and learned. To understand these sym­ pathies with the wilderness in Stafford’s verse, it is not enough to say that he is “Wordsworthian.” We may question whether Words­ worth ever traveled through the dark, and if he did it was a different dark from Stafford’s. Stafford’s wilderness seizes us with wonder at the enigma, grim, not friendly, yet not always forbidding either, of something that is a presence, all encompassing, but unknowable. Man's dependence upon some conception of a living wilderness from which he derives sustenance for his ego has long been recog­ nized as one of the landmarks of the romantic view. How much of the affliction diagnosed as “alienation” or loss of personal identity in our present literary setting may be traced to our failure to recognize or to respond to the wilderness? Stafford expressed this predicament in “By the Snake River” in West of Your City: Something sent me out in these desert places to this apparition river among the rocks because what I tried to carry in my hands was all spilled from jostling when I went among the people to be one of them. •T he poems quoted here from West of Your City, Traveling Through the Dark, and Rescued Year are quoted with the permission of William Stafford and Harper & Row and the Hudson Review. 218 Western American Literature This river started among such mountains that I look up to find those valleys where intentions were before they flowed in the kind of course the people would allow where I was a teacher, a son, a father, a man. For many people there is no wilderness left. It all but vanishes when the land becomes real estate. Stafford’s poetry keeps remind­ ing us of what we have lost. Particularly in the Pacific Northwest, what man has done to the natural setting by ignoring or by never knowing its inherent value is striking. Where there are mountains like Hood and Rainier dwarfing the skyscrapers of Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, or where there are waterways like the Columbia river and Puget Sound—there the ugliness of what man has made con­ trasts ironically with the grandeur of the environment; and it is spread before all who have “view” windows. This contrast appears in many places in Stafford’s poems: the sanitary, cautious, secure life of the suburbanite living perhaps in quiet desperation, the crass commercialism and ignorance of the memory of any wilderness seems to obsess us—all of this is limned with irony by Stafford when he writes, “Gasoline makes game scarce” and “it takes a lot of miles to equal one wildcat.” The poem in which these lines appear carries the curious title, “W ritten on the Stub of the First Paycheck.” It is printed in West of Your City. The confrontation of the wilderness with the works of man often induces a questioning of accepted values. For example the setting of the Seattle Art Museum poses a kind of dilemma for a visitor. He admires the beautiful facade of the Museum and may be curious about the marble rams of ancient oriental breed and the Chinese warrior, invincible also in marble; but if he faces about he sees the Olympic mountains across the Sound spreading north whiter than the clouds: here is the city; there is the bay and the mountains, and the panorama, always impressive, presents him with a dramatic confrontation of the wilderness and civilization. The visitor’s dilemma may be put in Stafford’s words from “Doubt on the Great Divide” in The Rescued Year: Mountains that thundered promises now say something small— In Stafford’s eyes this condition exists in Texas, in Kansas, in Oregon, in California; and he deals with it...


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