Poem of the week: “Allegiances” in troubled times

William Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1914 and died in 1993. He was a professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and a traveling teacher throughout the world. His book, “Traveling in the Dark,” won the National Book Award. For over 40 years he wrote a poem every day, over 20,000 of them, of which 3,000 or more were published. After giving a lecture on the craft of poetry, he ended with:

“Fair winds. Go forth. Save up the little pieces that escape other people – your dreams, the side glances your irresponsible mind makes, snatches of talk, whiffs from encounters. Pick up the gleanings.

“And remember to be on guard against the routines you think you know, the forced commitments that you shun questioning.

“Be careful of ‘craft’.”

Many in the movements for peace, justice and progress are paused now, as if before a high precipice. Like the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, we are not sure if we will be falcons heralding a new world being born, or a great song our people will learn together, or the storm that will change all we meet.

But whichever fate awaits us, as William Stafford’s poem “Allegiances” reflects, we will have to take care of each other; we will be our own protection.

“It’s late,” poet Naomi Nye says, “but everything comes next.”


by William Stafford from “The way it is: new and selected poems”

It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any; time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things
we live by.

Far to the North, or indeed in any direction,
strange mountains and creatures have always lurked—
elves, goblins, trolls and spiders — we
encounter them in dread and wonder,

But once we have touched the far streams, touched the gold,
found some limit beyond the waterfall.
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful.

Suppose an insane wind holds the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
where we are, strong for common things.

Published with permission, Graywolf Press, 1998

Photo: William Stafford. Slow Muse



John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.