NaPoWriMo #18 – Mustn’t grumble

William Stafford

It could happen any time,
earthquake, Armageddon. It
could happen.
Or sunshine, love,

It could, you know. That’s
why we wake
and look out – no
in this life.

But some bonuses, like
like right now, like noon,
like evening.


What is a poem, anyway? Why should this little clot of sentences be called a poem, and not just a Jolly Nice Idea which any of us could write down?

Well, sometimes a poem is indeed a Jolly Nice Idea and not a whole lot more. Let’s not get hung up on the idea that structure or syllable count is the only thing to distinguish poetry from other kinds of writing. Certainly, the machinery so well illustrated by Kathryn Maris yesterday is a big part of it: poetry is about patterning sound. But something that barely seems patterned at all can still be a poem. Some poems derive their power from the act of isolating a thought or a moment, and focusing attention on it – almost like a meditative text. Isolating that idea and expressing it concisely and with clarity, is perhaps the most important skill. You don’t have to be po-faced or grandiose to do it, as today’s poem shows.

This is a very large poem, disguised as a very small poem. William Stafford has a great big idea to deal with here. Broadly, he’s saying There are cataclysms, but there are also miracles. Life, eh? Mustn’t grumble.

Think about the decisions that went into these few lines. Firstly, who does he address it to? Stafford uses the title to suggest that he is answering a question, and incidentally to set the tone for the poem. He begins with an innocuous remark – ‘It could happen any time…’ He’s decided, like other poets we’ve looked at, that the reader doesn’t need any preamble to explain why he’s thinking about this, nor an explanation of who he’s talking to. It could be pillow talk, or a moment of contemplation during a fag break. He might be talking directly to you, dear reader. Unlike Kathryn Maris, who milked every drop from her circumstance and location in yesterday’s poem, we get no information about backdrop or context because unlike Kathryn Maris, the circumstance is not the point of the poem.

Without further ado, only one line in to this informal chat, we’re taken aback by tornado and earthquake – vast physical expressions of disaster. The very words give us a sense of the ground shifting beneath our feet. There are three powerful negatives, escalating: tornado, earthquake and finally Armageddon. Then we’re given a similar list of three powerful positives to balance against them. Sunshine is a shorthand for happiness, as we saw in Jenny Joseph’s poem on Sunday. It’s the first in an escalating list of joys – sunshine, love and the ultimate happiness of salvation. Stafford uses those big abstracts like ‘love’ and ‘salvation’ but only after he grounds us in the real world. He earns those big amorphous words by means of earthquakes and sunshine.

William Stafford doesn’t use many words to shape this huge framework for life. Neither did Carver in his Late Fragment. Verbosity is sometimes a sign that the writer is floundering, trying to express something which actually cannot be expressed. The real sense of a poem might be stuck in the gap between words, and often is. Stafford’s last list is the vital one. It isn’t just a list of times, but a progression through the day. There are ‘some bonuses’ –

like right now, like noon,
like evening.

So that would be every minute of the day, then. Yes.


Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist and former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One third of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate.

4 thoughts on “NaPoWriMo #18 – Mustn’t grumble

  1. And put in context of his own prolific output – his words spun out on a daily basis – I can see that ‘hit’ with my own practice of minimum daily verse. Thanks Jo.

  2. I wonder if we might think of poetry in terms of the shape it leaves in the silence. If the Stafford poem is read respecting the line-endings it makes a lovely, beguiling, curious shape. And after all, poetry is not talking or singing but something between.

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