As the world struggles to understand the senselessness of war in Ukraine, several people have written to me wondering how William might have responded, what he would have written, would have done. Today I share the story of an essay we found in William’s study, one that resonates all the more in light of recklessness and disregard.
A few months ago, in a deskside basket thick with correspondence, we found a small booklet titled “For An Undersea Library.” It was a short article that William wrote and published in the May/June 2001 edition of The American Poetry Review. The essay was reprinted in this booklet form in 2006 by Friends of William Stafford for its members. I had not read it nor heard it referenced, and I abandoned any semblance of a disciplined approach to going through William’s papers to sit down among stacks of books for a read. William recounts having received a letter, in the summer of 2000, from a corporate sales representative who worked for Borders book retailer, and who was selling books to the U.S. Navy bases in Puget Sound. This person mentions small libraries aboard Trident submarines, and asks:
What books should I recommend to…those men responsible for the maintenance and deployment of the deadliest weapons on earth?…What words do I hope these men have read, and thought of, before they push buttons?
These questions stunned me, then pulled me on:
Ideas, constructs of imagination, cause men to push buttons. I assume other ideas might cause men not to push buttons. Perhaps that’s a romantic notion. For me, right now, these are no longer speculative philosophic questions. I presently have the opportunity to place books into small libraries, which bored sailors visit frequently during the long months at sea.
What five books would you recommend?
What five individual poems?
. . . How much can we believe in our own language, our literature, how far does it reach?
William explores this last question as he makes his way to recommendations, but of course he doesn’t—and couldn’t—answer it. He is wary of the idea that “literature or other arts ought to have a didactic aim,” and yet writes that to assume a literature with no agency is to “risk abandoning it to smugness or frivolity.” He continues:
Whatever their conscious intention, authentic works of literature bring us, and aspire to bring us, recognition greater than their means, and the recognitions may in turn stir us, awakening sympathies and necessities that we had not known were ours. The recognition of our nature (not just our wishes) is something we might hope that someone entrusted with enormous responsibility over life and death would have faced, considered, contemplated with humility and an open mind.
What follows in the essay are William’s selections, considered with thoughtfulness and incredible empathy. You can read the whole essay on our website. Here, I share the essay’s concluding words:
There is a feeling of hope in the thought of Gerald Sternʻs dog and Stanley Kunitzʻs longing and Emily Dickinsonʻs questions being heard in the depth of such voyages.
With wishes for peace,