In the spirit of the first intent and sub-title of this blog—POEMS, POETS AND PROSODY—I offer this work of William Stafford as my guest.  He was an American poet who, many years ago, deeply inspired me for his easy and regular manner of writing, his loving where language can go, his insight, and his truth-telling. Though our work may appear to have little in common formally, the vision, and the heart, are the same.


There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

—- William Stafford

60 responses »

  1. I listened to this and stirred my coffee thoughtfully. I had a dear friend who often talked about us ‘walking our thread’. Like Stafford she knew it was always there, but her experience as a counseller taught her that we often wandered away from it. When we did that life got very hard until we stumbled back and caught up with our thread again. When those experiences came to us that allowed us to walk easily through new doors, grow as people, shine in our chosen ways she would smile and nod and say ‘You’re walking your thread.’

    Beautifully spoken Cynthia – a fitting choice for right now. Sending love and whatever else you need – I’m setting a big pot of real old fashioned chicken soup to stet today. It will be ready in 48 hours. 🙂

    • That thread is really a good metaphor, as both Stafford and your friend knew.

      Now, to indulge the subjunctive-contrary-to-fact I will imagine getting on a plane (impossible because I am frightened of airports and flying at the moment) and rushing to connect flights (impossible without a wheelchair and someone to push it) and arriving on your doorstep in New Zealand in good time to enjoy your delicious chicken soup (impossible because of the other two impossibilities).

      But I can certainly feel the kind spirit behind what you are sending this way,( probably via an angel….one of your cohort) and I am , as always, most gratefully nourished, Pauline. 🙂

      • Wouldn’t it be great if we could actually do this – we need for the whole teleportation thing to kick in before we die – you could just settle into your wheelchair and say ‘Beam me up Scottie’ or whatever the more modern equivalent is and boom-da! here you’ll be 🙂 Or if that sounds too much I’ll just pop over as soon as the soups ready………….

  2. I do see his influence on your writing. There is a simplicity to it that belies the careful craftsmanship in both your work. You’ve influenced me to read more of his poetry.

    • That you might read more of Stafford makes me happy, Susanne. He lived and worked primarily in the northwest of the US, a most gentle soul who does have a solid place in American Literature, with several important awards; but he has been continually underrated, I think, by academic poetry powers that be. He’s written some about writing, and his own ways of working at it—you, especially, might enjoy that.

  3. Minos’ daughter, Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of red thread before he entered the labyrinth–and the metaphor of the thread nourishes all/any of us whenever we find ourselves blindsided by life, unable to make our way through the unlit, the unfamiliar, the unknown, whispering to ourselves ‘the Truth shall make you free’. Thank God for that thread. Oh how I love this posting today, Cynthia.

    • Yes, the ball of thread is an ancient and wonderful metaphor. The cat died two weeks ago, and yesterday I had to have my dog euthanized. You know, probably, because you have my book, that my pets have been a great source of inspiration…really my only family for the past few years. So, having been recently unable to write much (I don’t want to be known as the dead pet poet) I thought of this for my weekly posting. Though I never met him in person, William Stafford has come to my rescue more than once, so here he is again. I love that you love the poem too, Lance!

  4. The gift of a line happens like this
    with no measure before, or now,
    to serve as a reason for carrying on
    The gift says: allow, allow.

    – words by another famous American poet

    • What scamp this way comes, to quote me my own words and leave me flummoxed for appropriate words to respond? My heart leaps up, as Wordsworth was wont to say. Now I am wondering if I was influenced by this Stafford poem when I wrote “The Gift Of A Line.” It was so long ago, I don’t really know, but am seeing the resemblance for the first time…thanks to you, dear Bruce. And thanks beyond this, too, for you.

  5. More please. I loved this and I had not come across William Stafford. I also love to hear you reading poems. You could blog twice as often (I can’t believe I wrote that, as I struggle to keep up with the blogs I follow) and I would listen to every word. I hang on to the thread.

    • I’m happy to have introduced you to William Stafford. He began writing poetry when he was sent to a work camp as a conscientious objector as this country was at war. He learned to awaken at 4:00 in the morning to write, and once he was released from that imprisonment kept the same writing “schedule” for the rest of his life. I am smiling at your remark about posting twice as often….I have done all I could do to be faithful to my self-imposed promise to post once a week! And, like you, I want to be able to keep up reasonably with the blogs I follow….so much is so interesting in this world…. with so little time.

  6. I love this poem and have been further enriched by the comments! Mary Oliver I think wrote a poem dedicated to Stafford that showed him as a swimmer. I think he must have been kind to other poets and younger poets. I am so sorry to hear about your dog, Cynthia. Two like that so close. Oof. Nothing adequate to say. I would cook your favorite comfort food if I were nearby and have a meal with you. On a lighter side, for some reason the poem harkened ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ to my mind because of the repletion of a line which can also be a metaphor. ‘You can dance on the breeze/ over houses and trees/ with your fist holding tight/ to the string of your kite.” Keep hold of the line!

    • Stafford wrote several books about writing, but the one favored by writing programs, with lots of good advice for beginning poets is entitled “Writing the Australian Crawl”.

      His poetry seems, on the face of it, so simple, and I have always loved the anecdote about how he was doing a reading once, and a lady in the audience who was not impressed, opined: “you call that a poem? I could have written that myself!” Stafford replied: “But you didn’t.”
      (He was then quick to mollify by saying; “Of course you could write one of your own.”)

      I like the association with the Mary Poppins film and “Let’s go Fly a Kite.” In a way, this idea of the thread is like that….I recall that sense of playing with the wind, in kite flying…and in managing to sail a small sailboat as well. It all seems to be related to tuning-in to the natural flow of the way the wind blows: keeping hold of the line, indeed, and knowing when to pull taut or give slack.

  7. Hi Cynthia,

    I like the quiet conversational mysticism in this one. I guess each of us is born with a true purpose in life or vocation. Stafford’s “thread” was surely poetry.

    Although I’d heard of William Stafford as a former US Poet Laureate, I’d never really explored his work before. My first foray on the internet now has led me, perhaps inevitably, to his unlovely but memorable poem ‘Travelling Through The Dark’ about a dead deer found at the roadside with a live fawn in her belly. I’m intrigued and will explore further.

    Thank you for pointing the way.

    My very best from Wales,


    • Hello Paul,

      Your phrase, “quiet conversational mysticism,” is an excellent one to apply to the work of William Stafford. And your discovery of “Traveling Through The Dark” on your first foray to find internet info on him doesn’t surprise me. It seems that particular poem is one of the most often cited, and yet I don’t see it as at all his most important or his best. I’m glad you are interested enough to explore further, however. His is a most original and articulate voice, in particular as it speaks from a western American geography, and in general, I think, as it speaks from the human heart and mind.

      Thank you so much for reading. I’m very glad you find it interesting.


  8. Sometimes a poem can be like the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle, insofar as it brings the pieces around it together. This poem just happened to fit that description for me today. By way of somewhat circumventive explanation, not so long ago (by choice) I let go of a thread I was following. I wonder if William Stafford would say that was a bad choice, or would he say I might have thought I let go but actually I didn’t, because you don’t!

    I was about to delete this comment, Cynthia, as I felt it would fall flat without further explanation, or at least leave me open to the charge of mixing metaphors – but then I thought, what’s to stop me from turning an abandoned wild silk cocoon into a jigsaw puzzle?:)

    • I’m so glad you didn’t delete your comment! It is wonderful when a poem is like the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle…I think I know exactly what you mean by that. William Stafford’s lines are so simple and conversational at times, one might mistake them as trivial…but he did end this poem with “You don’t ever let go of the thread,” and as one who has read a great deal of his work I would say that isn’t an admonition but indeed a statement of ‘the way it is.”

      Now you have me wondering whether a picture puzzle is still a picture when it is all in separated jigsaw pieces in a box.

      Thank you for a delightful comment, Brad.

  9. Whether paying homage to past idols or cossetting the memory of departed friends, we always seem to be hanging on by a thread–a testament to the fragility of the existence we live.

    • …and oh how some of us (you and I, for starters) do love to amuse ourselves by extruding spider silk from our spinnerets, hoping for a threaded spiral of beauty or at least to grab on to a dark corner and make some kind of (non) sense of it all…

          • Did I say toiling? I meant to say tilting–at windmills. Funny how things get garbled up sometimes. If I could only get into the habit of reading what I write, such muddy mistakes would be avoided. Which is a shame, as most inventions come about through the making of egregious errors.

  10. Isn’t it great to hold to something that doesn’t change? Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem. I can the the same clarity in both William Stafford’s and your poetry.

    • You’re right, Inese, how we long to hold to what doesn’t change! I’m glad to hear that you like the poem, and honored to be seen in the same light with William Stafford. Thank you!

    • The idiom that comes to mind, is “punch drunk,” which is how a fighter in the boxing ring feels when he keeps getting hit, and getting up again, over and over.. then he is staggering,.but he is still standing! 🙂

      I’m glad you enjoyed this poem. Stafford is a very good poet. Thank you so much for your comment, and your kindness, Sylvie.

  11. The poem made me think things which I would like to share.
    I feel like I took hold of my own thread very early in life and never put it down and had complete trust in following it. I always knew what I wanted to do and people who didn’t know what they wanted fascinated me. Here I am, not young anymore but still as sure and determined as when I was young. His thread is a metaphor for life but I saw something else. I saw the thread as a calling out from something bigger. I wonder if artists and writers feel the pull of this thread more? When i am writing or creating something, I feel like “this is what I am meant to be doing” ❤
    PS. I am very, very sorry for your loss. I have 2 senior dogs myself, one who rides home from his walk in a sling because he gets tired. I love them so much and I send you virtual strength to help you through.

    • Maybe you’ve happened on something true, especially, about those with an artistic calling. I think it is what Stafford was talking about too. He had a difficult time, in his urge to write and in pursuing the calling of poet. He stuck to it; probably because he believed in his “thread.” Perhaps that is what he meant by “it’s hard for others to see,” because, in a very great many cases, it is hard for others to see, and that becomes a discouragement. Anyway, you seem to know the happy circumstance of doing what you are meant to do….and that’s wonderful.

      Thank you for your sympathetic words about the dog. They do become family, and are such beautiful, loving creatures; to lose them is heartbreaking.

  12. As usual, your cadence brilliantly delivers Stafford’s words. I can detected a bit of his influence on your work. Meanwhile, the thread is a powerful metaphor, yet so real.

  13. Back in the day when poetry were published mainly on paper in literary journals/magazines, I was somehow fortunate enough to have poems in some of the same publications as Wm. Stafford. One such “meeting” was Stafford’s poignant TRAVELING THROUGH THE DARK, several pages distant from a poem of mine in THE BEDFORD INTRODUCTION TO LITERATURE (FOURTH EDITION). Of course, my work couldn’t hold a candle to Stafford’s, traveling through the dark or wherever, but it was pretty heady stuff for an amateur such as I to appear in such company.

    Here are the opening and 3rd stanzas of his poem:

    Traveling through the dark I found a deer
    dead on the edge of the Wilson River Road.
    It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
    that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

    My fingers touching her side brought me the reason —
    her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
    alive, still, never to be born.
    Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

    The poem concludes:

    I thought hard for us all — my only swerving —
    then pushed her over the edge into the river.

    • Oh those days of the little and university literary journals! I was published in some of those, too. But it was so hard–and discouraging—to be always submitting (interesting word, “submitting,”) to them, getting rejected and trying again. And to be published usually only meant that one was read only by other poets, who were also trying to get published. Nobody, like my mother, or anyone I actually knew, read any of those journals and magazines.

      Stafford had a habit of sending out hundreds of poems a year…he wrote nearly one a day and didn’t usually worry about whether they were “acceptable” or not—just kept sending them out, hot off the press. Consequently, in the assessment of his status as an important poet, the reason often given for why he isn’t held in higher esteem by those who make such judgements is because of the plethora of mediocre work that made its way out there.

      “Traveling Through The Dark” has become almost a signature poem. It’s the one that is always attached to bios and google articles about Stafford. And yet, I don’t especially like it. I think he wrote other things more powerful, and more beautiful. Such is fame and reputation….people will make of it what they will, when we’re gone.

      However any of that may be, I am sincerely impressed that you were published in the same publication as was he. That must have been heady stuff, indeed. And not to be sneezed at!

      • I stopped submitting to the “littles”15-20 years ago. Would I have stopped if not for the foreboding effect of the oncoming internet revolution? Perhaps that only contributed to a general sense of ennui at the time, so I may have all but stopped anyway. But, at least, blogging has allowed me to make limited peace with technology. That’s “THE WAY IT IS” when you’re computer semi-literate!

        P.S. Speaking of semi-literate, I see that, in the first sentence of my previous comment, I forgot to change the word “were” to “was” when I changed the word “poems” to “poetry.” I doubt if I would’ve made that mistake on paper. Such is the price of progress! 🙂

        • I am not even semi-literate about computers, since I came of age way before they did. But I’m really happy to have jumped in enough to do some of the basic things, like email and surfing the net. It’s just glorious not to have to go out shopping, to publish my poems on a blog, and to find a kind of camaraderie that would have been impossible for a solitary elder in the good old days.
          I do think of the blog as “publishing” (apparently the journals and mags do too, because they are not accepting poems previously published on a blog). I have been urged by some to publish in a”real” way, i.e. paper, hard copy, but I’m not sure we’re there anymore. I self-published my own hardcover book, and though it doesn’t exist as a million copies, I know it is on particular shelves, all over the globe. These are exciting times.

          I collect odd ways of saying things, and I kinda like “the day when poetry were published”…’s reminiscent of a character on the British TV serial “Last Tango In Halifax,” who would have said it exactly like that! 🙂

  14. How apt as a metaphor for life. As long as you have a thread to hold on to, a belief, a vision, an object, a path will keep on unfolding before you. The thread may change but a thread you must have.

  15. I’m very sorry to read of your dog Cynthia – March was a very tough month for you losing two pets. Thinking of you these days, take care my friend.

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