The late William Stafford is revered as a poet who had both feet firmly planted on the ground.
“He didn’t distinguish between poetry and the way he lived his life,” Neil Baker, of Bainbridge Island, said.
Part of that grounding came from his Kansan roots, a formative time when he learned that “everywhere we looked the land would hold us up.”
Stafford died in 1993 at his home in Lake Oswego, Ore., but his influential poetry lives on.
The poet will be honored Jan. 22 with the Fifth Annual William Stafford Birthday Celebration at the Bainbridge Library, hosted by Baker and featuring local poets reading Stafford’s poetry. Stafford would have turned 93 on Jan. 17.
When patriotic fever was running high as the United States entered WWII, Stafford declared himself to be a conscientious objector and declined to serve in the war. He instead worked for the Civilian Public Service, building trails and fighting fires in Arkansas, California and Illinois.
He later wrote about the experience as his master’s thesis, which was published as the book, “Down in My Heart.”
In 1948 he joined the English faculty of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., where he taught until his retirement.
He wrote 67 books in his lifetime, but didn’t publish his first book of poetry until he was 46. In 1963 he won the National Book Award for “Traveling Through the Dark.”
In 1975 he was appointed Oregon Poet Laureate and opened each session of the legislature by reading a poem.
Stafford didn’t confine his teaching to the Northwest college. In his later years he traveled throughout the United States, Europe and Southern Asia, giving readings and mentoring aspiring poets.
Baker came across Stafford in a poetry class taught by John Wilson, on Bainbridge Island. Baker found a connection with the man he had never met.
“I realized — ‘Wow, this man has been a mentor to me,’” he said.
One piece of Stafford writing advice that gave encouragement to the budding writer was to “lower your standards and keep going.” The teacher reportedly wrote a poem a day and gave the same assignment to his students. When they protested, that was his advice — lower your standards and keep going.
Baker will read a Stafford poem or two to open the event, then turn the mic over to poets Jennifer Hager, Roger Midgett, Marit Saltrones and David Stallings. They will read either a Stafford poem and one of their own Stafford-inspired works, or two Stafford poems. The audience is encouraged to participate in an open mic following the main readings.
Baker said the poets reading are all centered around Wilson’s class and are fine poets in their own right.
“They are all highly committed to talking about their truths,” he said.
Baker started the annual reading as a way to celebrate the life and work of Stafford, and his efforts won the stamp of approval from the Friends of William Stafford group, which is dedicated to raising awareness of the power of poetry and literature by modeling the legacy, life and works of Stafford.
The Bainbridge Island reading is listed on the group’s Web site, www.wmstafford.org, along with hundreds of other Stafford Birthday Celebrations around the nation in January. Co-sponsors of the Island event are the Bainbridge Library, Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council and Friends of William Stafford.
The Fifth Annual William Stafford Birthday Celebration takes place 7 p.m. Jan. 22, Bainbridge Library, 1270 Madison Ave. N., Bainbridge Island. The event is free, and there will be birthday cake.