A Story That Could Be True (William Stafford)

July 8, 2009

If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.

He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by–
you wonder at their calm.

They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”–
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”


I had the good fortune last week of attending a poetry reading in the cloister of the church we’ve been attending for some months now. The last reader of the evening read from William Stafford, and I was reminded of how good his poems are, especially when with patience and affection. You could tell the reader had spent a long time with the poems, probably years. Stafford is the kind of poet you could spend years with.

I like Stafford very much, not least because, in addition to writing really good poems, he lived admirably, at least from what one learns from reading interviews and his essays on craft. I also like his sensibility regarding the process of reading and writing poems. Stafford liked to invoke a few lines from William Blake to indicate how one goes about writing or reading a poem–processes not so dissimilar as one might think:

I give you the end of a golden string
      Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
      Built in Jerusalem’s wall.

“The stance to take, reading or writing,” Stafford tells us, “is neutral, ready, susceptible to the now; such a stance is contrary to anything tense or determined or ‘well-trained.’ Only the golden string knows where it is going, and the role for a writer or reader is one of following, not imposing.”

In “A Story that Could Be True” the string leads us to that bright but brittle subject of possibility we wake to every morning of every day of our lives. Given play, the limitless possibilities–what could have been, what should have been, would could yet be–are as thrilling as they are cause for grief. Stafford gives the best possible answer to that desperate question “Who are you really, wanderer?”–an answer you have to give because, beyond the imagining mind, the mind open to possibility, there is little else with enough force to hold back the “dark and cold/ …world around you.”

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