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Admirers celebrate poet's life and work

The 100th birthday of famed Oregon poet William Stafford will be celebrated this year with readings of his works and the publication of "Sound of the Ax," an unusual collection of witty and wise aphorisms culled from his voluminous prose.

Co-edited by retired Ashland teacher Vince Wixon, a longtime Stafford scholar, the mind-tweaking maxims are unusual in that they seem commonsensical, but they make you stop and scratch your head, pondering their possible deeper meanings.

In fact, says Wixon, one of the aphorisms says just that — "You can make a living by championing the obvious."

Stafford pens, "No matter how well or loud you speak, none of the stars will stop to listen."

Obviously, that's true, says Wixon, but it deftly points out, "Don't think so much of yourself. It's a big world. It makes you stop and think about talking loud and carrying on."

Aphorisms are rarely collected and published — but more people like to read aphorisms than poetry, says Wixon.

Stafford's birthday will be celebrated at 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 16, in the Meese Room at Southern Oregon University's Hannon Library.

Reading Stafford poems — and one of their own — are poets Lawson Inada, Priscilla Hunter, Amy MacLennan, Joan Peterson and Paul Suter. It is free and open to the public.

Wixon, in his preface to the book, says Stafford saw an aphorism as "a metaphor in work clothes" or a statement "designed to deliver groceries."

A good example, says Wixon, is the mysterious aphorism, "Wood that can learn is no good for a bow."

Exploring this idea, he says, you might have the insight that a bow is useful because it resists the pull. If it didn't, what good would it be as a bow? Automatically, you begin to apply this idea to the human mind and to life. Should you be like the bow or should you learn and change with conditions?

Stafford grew up in Kansas and declared himself a conscientious objector during World War II. Several of his aphorisms explain why, says Wixon:

  • "You may win a war you are sorry you have started."
  • "On a battlefield, the flies don't care who won."
  • "In that war, we persuaded ourselves that the people we were killing were really bad."
  • "In the Pentagon, one person's job is to take pins out of towns, hills and fields, and then save the pins for later."

The aphorism about the pins, says Wixon, is among Stafford's darkest, as it strongly implies there will be the next war to map out.

Then there's this one: "A good workman will both trust and at the same time suspect his tools."

What was Stafford talking about?

It's for you to figure out, says Wixon, but it seems to imply that no matter how wise and skilled you are at your work, you don't know everything, and there is always more to learn.

As for the book's title, notes Wixon, it comes from the aphorism, "It's not the sound of the axe that cuts the tree."

Meaning? Wixon speculates that perhaps it points at the importance of "the activity of living and doing things, not just talking about it." Stafford leaves it for you to decide.

The book will be available in February from the University of Pittsburgh Press, a prestigious publisher of verse.

Patty Wixon, who will emcee the birthday event, describes Stafford's aphorisms as the work of a "wide-ranging mind, (exploring) faith and harmony, the lives of animals, art and writing, how to behave, war and peace, loyalty, appearance and reality, history, honesty, egoism, work, fears, all expressed in a concise, witty and provocative way."

At the Stafford event, Mary Jane Cedarface of Hannon Library will briefly review the six Stafford books chosen by Oregon State Library to read and discuss as part of Oregon Reads.

Audience members will be invited to read one of their favorite Stafford poems. A clip from the documentary "What the River Says" will show Stafford reading one of his poems and talking about it.

In connection with the Stafford centennial, the statewide Oregon Reads 2014 program will offer many events to promote reading, with those of Jackson County happening in March and April, said Ashland library Director Amy Blossom.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

The life and works of Oregon poet William Stafford will be celebrated Thursday in Ashland on the 100th anniversary of his birthday. - Photo courtesy of Vince Wixon