Poetry Friday: The Breathing Respect You Carry

h1 September 19th, 2008 by jules

William StaffordDo you ever read a poem that just absolutely blows you away and you want to yawp about it barbarically on the rooftops of the world but then wonder, hmmmm, did everyone else read this poem when they were, like, two years old and they’re all, ‘Oh please, Jules. I can recite that’? Well, that may be the case today, but this poem is new to me.

It’s called “You Reading This, Be Ready” by American poet William Stafford, pictured here. I have author John E. Simpson to thank for it (this blogger, who goes by “JES”), who apparently frequents Haven Kimmel’s blog, as Eisha and I do. Over at her blog—where my oh my she likes to ask The Big Questions on a regular basis—she asks this week, how are we to live? She shares “the walls of the house” she lives in and then asks her dedicated readers, how are you to live? John’s response was to share this poem, and I saw it there, since I read the comments at Haven’s blog about as devotedly as I read her posts. And I just about passed right the hell out, wondering where—and I mean OH WHERE?!!!—have these words been all my life? I had never seen before this brilliant, little prayer of a poem.

And it’s just what I needed this week, too. It’s not my style to wax all deeply personal online—and I am aware the huge risk I run of sounding insufferably WHINEY here—but suffice it to say I was in a bit of a funk this week, as I’m trying to readjust to new schedules, more time at work, less time for the way I used to do things, not as much time as I want for reading, chasing after young children (they bring great joy but also great noise) — getting really weary, in general, of feeling like I’m rushing, skimming the surface of everything (how DO those of you who read lots of blogs do it? I got so tired of just skimming everyone’s fabulous, thoughtful posts—skimming them being all I seemed to have time for—that I just gave up blog-reading altogether for a bit there), wishing that I could devote myself to one thing—just one thing—deeply. I know how fussy I must sound, and I know that many people suffer from this kind of trying-to-keep-up-with-everything ennui. I loathe being so Twenty-First-Century about it all; I didn’t think I was a mad multi-tasker. All of that—plus hearing much worse things, such as about friends and family being ill—led me to question this week, very simply, why I do everything I do — and wonder, What am I missing? What am I supposed to be paying attention to? ERGH. And, well, waiting for time to show me some better thoughts, I suppose.

Yeah, one of those weeks. Does any of all that even make sense? So then John shares this poem, something he probably did casually, effortlessly, and little did he realize, I wonder, that miles and miles away a reader like me was knocked over by it, slapped upside the head by its deep, deep wisdoms — and feeling like someone had just given me a gift.

I’m not even going to worry about copyright restrictions on this one. I take my risks. I have to post it all. Yes, I’d get sued for this poem.

Thanks, John. Thoreau once wrote, “to affect the quality of the day–that is the highest of arts.” Consider my day-quality improved with Stafford’s collection of words there. I’d hang it right over my desk if I didn’t think that seeing it every day wouldn’t numb me to the words. Instead, I’ll tuck it away and let it surprise me again another time.

Readers, you can either take that poem—if it’s also new to you—and let it sink in, leaving quietly. Option number two is: Tell me. What do you see when you turn around?

The Poetry Friday round-up is over at author amok today.

33 comments to “Poetry Friday: The Breathing Respect You Carry”

  1. am now in love with this poem as well. i’ve been feeling similar (but to a lesser degree) this week. am glad this poem found me on a sleepy Friday morning, wishing the day were already through.

  2. Jules, it makes sense. Don’t feel guilty for your worries. The people who are really suffering, they wish to have these little problems again. You can validate your worries, and also put them in perspective.

    I like the Thoreau quote. Thank you for that and the poem. I turned around and saw my door. I decided to leave someone today, and when I turned around I only saw my door.

  3. Lucy, glad you liked it.

    A., yes, Stafford puts it into perspective quickly. I hope the poem can also do that for those suffering from much larger worries than rushing-about-and-not-wanting-to. And I hope you seeing a door and having a relationship break is a good thing.

    Thanks for visiting. The links seem to be piling up at author amok’s round-up, so there’s much poetry goodness to be had today.

  4. Awww shucks, now I’m all embarrassed. [scuffs feet] Anyway, you’re welcome Jules. I’m so glad the poem found you (as lucy said) at a good time.

    You mentioned your reluctance to hang it over your desk. My own work surface here at the day job is configured in a sort of U shape, with the computer on one leg of the U; the base and the other leg are occupied by shelves, cabinets, and such. I keep the poem taped to a shelf which is behind my head when I’m working at the computer. So, to answer your question, when I turn around I see the poem reminding me to turn around. It’s a little confusing but it seems to work for me. 🙂

    A’s seeing the door, under the circumstances described, was quite amazing.

  5. Jules, I turned around and saw this beautiful poem (new to me, too)! Aw, man, it brought me to my knees.

    I do think psychic waves travel at higher speeds through cyberspace. I was feeling similar things this week, too, and posted a poem and quotes by Stephen Dobyns, who said that the question that exists in every work of art, music, painting, etc., is How does one live?

    We all seem to be trying to figure that out.

  6. Jules!
    When I turn around I see a William Stafford poem.
    This one:

    Being a Person

    Be a person here. Stand by the river, invoke
    the owls. Invoke winter, then spring.
    Let any season that wants to come here make its own
    call. After that sound goes away, wait.

    A slow bubble rises through the earth
    and begins to include sky, stars, all space,
    even the outracing, expanding thought.
    Come back and hear the little sound again.

    Suddenly this dream you are having matches
    everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
    If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
    world, or you, or the river, or the owls calling.

    How you stand here is important. How you
    listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.

  7. Thank you for this! This poem is exactly why I love Poetry Friday.

  8. Oh Liz, that’s right! I remember you posting that at Sara’s blog (that was it, right?), and I commented upon how wonderful that one is, too. That seals the deal: I’m going to have to look more into Stafford’s work.

    JES, Jama, Tabatha, and Liz again: Thanks for visiting, too. I have been beating myself up all morning over this post — thinking of how whiney I must sound when people I know have been diagnosed with cancer or their loved ones have been and there are people all over the world struggling to live, struggling to keep themselves alive, to find food. My goodness, I hardly have anything to complain about…but I guess thinking about all that, too, can contribute to bringing one’s week down. But I should hardly complain about feeling rushed. So all that’s to say: Thanks for not coming here and slapping me around a bit. Which is maybe what I need….

    Then again, I’ve already established that Stafford’s poem was a bit of a slapping-me-in-the-face anyway — the good kind. And the gentle kind.

    Jama, good luck to you, too, on finding balance.

    Thanks again, Liz, for that poem.

  9. This second Stafford poem (thanks, Liz in Ink) really resonates with me. When I’m overstretched and in a funk, often what I need to do is just be. By myself, by water, maybe in the woods. Complexity and demands and noise drain my energy, so I need to simplify, be alone, and be quiet to recharge.

    But I’ve also found that those are quick fixes — if I haven’t set up my life in a way that matches my values, the dissonance and stress return too quickly after a temporary escape. So I have to bring those elements into life, rather than just using them as a refuge; especially simplicity, which means different things for different people…but I think it has something to do with reducing the number of decisions you have to make in a day/week/month.

    Also something to do with uncluttering schedules and focusing on activities that don’t require purchases. Remembering that good food and good friends do wonders.

    But mostly it has to do with expectations, at least for me. I think most of us with young kids expect ourselves to maintain rewarding careers, rich social lives, intellectual stimulation, creative pursuits and even community involvement while still trying to be good parents and partners. It’s impossible.

    A wise mentor of mine captured this somewhat by saying that you can really only do two-and-a-half things well, especially in this life stage. You can jam more things into your life, but you won’t be doing anything well then…and they won’t bring much happiness or satisfaction. I think there’s real truth there. We try to do too much.

    Sorry, I’m babbling. Thanks for the inspiration to think this morning.

  10. Jeremy, you are hardly babbling. You speak wise words here (partly via Doug, so thanks to him, too).

    Part of my surprise here is that we are not big consumers in our family; I’m a big believer in not overscheduling my children; and, well, etc. etc. I won’t go on and on and risk whining again. But see how things can change so slowly that you don’t even notice you’ve gotten off track — somehow, some way?

    Thanks again, Jeremy. I’ll remember Doug’s words.

  11. Oh yeah, I hear you. And being off-track doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve made bad choices, either — sometimes it’s just biochemical, or unexplainable…or external events that seem to send things out of synch. But when I go round and round on this stuff, I keep coming back to expectations as the key. Our beliefs about what we *should* be doing contribute most to our sense of well-being. Often that process is the opposite of thankfulness.

  12. Very Thornton Wilder-ish. (Our Town) I do want to remember the Now, when my children are still young (some of them) and still doing things with me.

  13. OMG! One of my faves. He is such a NW classic.

  14. “the breathing respect” is why I’ve sought out extra yoga classes lately. Last week, I had the honor of “just breathing” alongside a couple who were dealing with PTSD and physical wounds, too. I felt silly worrying about my weak ankle that has been plaguing me for two weeks. But I felt good about breathing with them.

    Thank you for this gift today.

  15. I have had this page up all day. I went away and came back several times to read the poem again.

    It takes awhile for it to settle in.

    Liz posted something at her site about just breathing for fifteen minutes a day, and I had the sort of ludicrous response of “Eh? I can’t do that!” I don’t know why it sounded so impossible.

    …carrying a breathing respect for my world, for my day, for my thoughts — is such a huge idea, that I think I’m going to have to keep coming back to it.

    I’ve only read one William Stafford poem before today, and today I found — unexpectedly — three! So here’s another Stafford gift for you:

    Wind Gift
    by William Stafford

    For you, something not put
    even in prayer.
    Like broad wings that swim thick
    under your fall
    And won’t let you drop
    through the air.

    Or the same thing under the sea
    where your boat goes.
    A teeming companionship
    of life too full for a hollow
    —the way a canyon’s alive
    when it snows.

    That’s the way, under and over
    and all around—
    Miraculous out of the void
    All for you—
    so wild the eye roves
    wing, fin, flake
    nor touches the ground.

  16. Wow! I needed that today. I hadn’t read either of the poems … now I will seek out a new poet. Thank you for that.

    “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” ~ unknown

  17. TadMack, whoa. Okay, I’m going to have to accelerate this process of getting some of his anthologies in my hand. Everything I’ve seen is like he’s addressing this how-are-we-to-live notion, and damn, he did it well.

    Thanks for sharing that. Your PF entry for today is a doozy, too. I’m still thinking about it.

    Jeremy, “the opposite of thankfulness.” I like that. I have been feeling this lately: That I want to take ONE THING and get to know it so well, just ONE thing — an object? a poem? one blog? one novel? one person? It doesn’t even matter. Study this for hours and hours and some more hours. Emerson once wrote, “The world is enlarged for us, not by new objects, but by finding more affinities and potencies in those we have.”

    Sherry and Jone and Terry, glad you liked it. Sara, happy that it was like a gift for you, as it was for me.

  18. Thanks for posting this poem, Jules. Stafford is definitely the poet to turn to when life is pressing in a little too hard and you want to remind yourself that the mystery of it all is not frightening but in some ways comforting. I heard Stafford read at the Bumbershoot Festival (or was it the U of Washington? Not sure – it was a long time ago) in Seattle once, and I swear it made every hair on the back of my neck stand up – he kept repeating in his beautiful voice the words “This is the hand…” and “these fingers” and “this hand,” and “this hand” again – all the while holding his hand up to us – I felt like it was the voice of God filling the room, and I’m not what you would call a religious person. Here is the poem he read:


    This is the hand I dipped in the Missouri
    above Council Bluffs and found the springs.
    All through the days of my life I escort
    this hand. Where would the Missouri
    meet a kinder friend?

    On top of Fort Rock in the sun I spread
    these fingers to hold the world in the wind;
    along that cliff, in that old cave
    where men used to live, I grubbed in the dirt
    for those cool springs again.

    Summits in the Rockies received this diplomat.
    Brush that concealed the lost children yielded
    them to this hand. Even on the last morning
    when we all tremble and lose, I will reach
    carefully, eagerly through that rain, at the end —

    Toward whatever is there, with this loyal hand.

    William Stafford, The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems
    Graywolf Press, 1998, p. 144

  19. Julie, wow. What a great poem, and what a great experience it sounds like it was to hear him read. “Like it was the voice of God filling the room” — I can imagine this, even having just read a bit of his poetry. I definitely want to know more about him. Haven Kimmel at her blog said she worked with him or studied with him or knew him for years, I believe; it was something like that. I think he was a pacifist, a gentle soul, but don’t quote me on the pacifist part. I’m just gonna have to get a biography and some anthologies already.

    Also, incidentally, I did a little squeal to see you comment. I am a fan of yours. Thanks for visiting!

    Jama, are you still around? You and I, who have things for hands, how about that poem Julie shared?

  20. Obviously, we have been underneath the same rock together, you and I, not knowing the poems of William Stafford, each of them leaving me gobsmacked. I must look for a collection, I think. Thanks for sharing your poem. I hope you took something beautiful with you when you turned around. I know I did, thanks to you.

  21. Kelly, I KNOW! How about all these great people coming along to contribute more of his poems, too?! Thanks again to Liz and TadMack and Julie L. for that. I’m in gobsmack with you (yeah, making that a noun sounds funny) and must explore further.

  22. Jules, and all of the other Stafford contributers here, I thank you. You have helped me to know what I will write about my difficult week.

  23. Wow, you’re right, Jules. “Witness” is wonderful, with reference to the hand. Three Stafford poems in one day! What a huge gift and blessing.

  24. Oh it is to sigh, 7-Imp. What a great site. Gobsmackery everywhere!

  25. Even though his son teaches at my alma mater, and I wrote my senior thesis in the William Stafford Room of the library (surrounded by photos and excerpts of his writing), I’ve read very little of his poetry – which, as it turns out today, is a real shame. Thank you for risking a lawsuit! I needed this poem today, too.

  26. I’ve been aware of Stafford before, but not in this stunned way. Gorgeous poems.

    I just finished reading Life as We Knew It last night, and that plus these poems this morning has me feeling kind of otherworldly, disconnected, but at the same time hyperaware of every detail around me. Thanks!

  27. Wow… I awoke this morning thinking this would be the first day of the rest of my life, fighting to come out of the oppressive fog that has blanketed me for some time. I wrote a poem for the first time is awhile as I sat on the patio listening to the birds… then decided to see if I could connect with some like minded souls… Wonders of the universe, I find this poem. Thank you..

  28. Thanks, all. Cindie, I’m glad you found it.

  29. […] been thinking again this week about the hustle and bustle of our lives. And, as a result, I went looking yesterday for […]

  30. I love Stafford’s poetry and wrote a poem inspired by his work:

    If I Could Be Like William Stafford

    The deer would be my model —
    it loves its own herd, peering
    alert from the shadow-edge of trees
    with its whole quivering body. The pools
    of its eyes absorb depths of darkness,
    reflect chips of light. “I know the night,” 
    they say, “and also the day.”

    I’d prefer the places where they meet,
    the dusks and dawns where everything hides
    in dappled sight, disguised in the ordinary,
    complaining like any honest farmer.
    I’d be slyly wise, trip you with a trick
    hoof into seeing your own startled gaze
    in unlikely mirrors scattered
    along the homespun way.

  31. Diane, hi there. Thanks for sharing your poem with us.

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