Twenty Thousand Invitations

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

than the breathing respect that you carry

wherever you go right now? Are you waiting

for time to show you some better thoughts?

~ William Stafford

Music students at Sisters High School in Central Oregon were offered a chance to put a William Stafford poem to music. The assignment grew out of a statewide celebration of Stafford’s 100th birthday. The students, all members of the Sisters Folk Festival’s Americana Project, performed their compositions at the Sisters Library on January 26. I wasn’t prepared for what happened.

Several of these teenagers created songs with such brilliant phrasing, one felt Stafford must have meant these poems to be sung all along. The musicians entered the poems and danced around, exploring the acoustics. For two or three minutes, they became Stafford, there in the room. I remember leaving the concert thinking, “I want an assignment like that!”

But adult life has a way of descending into mediocrity. Our artistic souls get lost in the chores.

But wait. Isn’t that what Stafford refused to do? He woke up and wrote every morning before dawn, whether he felt like it or not, whether he had an “idea” or not. He crafted essential poems before most of us were awake. He was a conscientious objector to mediocrity.

But that’s not really it. One of the meanings of mediocrity is to be ordinary. Stafford relished the everyday, the blessed ordinariness of life. He was suspicious of the precious. So, what makes his work so compelling for me?

I’m intrigued that he gave himself the daily assignment of being a witness. He got out of bed in the dark and set about appreciating what he’d been given to work with. He ended up writing twenty thousand poems. Only a fraction of them became refined enough to publish, but he welcomed them all. And in many of his poems he invites us to give it a try. Wake up and welcome your thoughts — all of them. William Stafford has written us twenty thousand invitations.