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Home is the Place that Holds You

Kathleen Holt

I'm Eric McHenry, Kansas Poet Laureate.

Today, I'd like to explore the work of another great Kansas poet- William Stafford.  He spent his career years in Oregon where he was the Poet Laureate, but he continued to write about life and "place" on the plains of Kansas.

  Home Is the Place that Holds You

Somebody once asked the poet William Stafford why he kept writing about western Kansas, where he’d grown up, even after decades of living in Oregon. What was wrong with Oregon? “Oregon’s all right,” Stafford said, “except the mountains and the trees get in the way of the scenery.”

For Stafford, the ideal landscape was mostly skyscape. He liked an unobstructed view, prospects limited only by the distant curving away of the earth. The purpose of land isn’t to be seen; it’s to be felt with your soles. His poem “One Home” begins with the line “Mine was a Midwest home — you can keep your world,” and ends with “Wherever we looked the land would hold us up.”

The word “hold” appears again and again in Stafford’s poetry. It’s a versatile verb, and when he was writing about the Kansas of his childhood, it seemed to come to him unbidden. In “The Rescued Year,” his great long poem about growing up “against the western boundary” of Kansas, he uses it four times in four different senses: to behold, like an eye, and to contain, to make still, and to cling to, like a closed hand.

When it’s the land doing the holding in his poetry, the hand is always open: “the land would hold us up.” Stafford’s western Kansas is an upturned palm.

Listen for the word in this short lyric, “One Evening”:

On a frozen pond a mile north of Liberal

almost sixty years ago I skated wild circles

while a strange pale sun went down.

A scattering of dry brown reeds cluttered

the ice at one end of the pond, and a fitful

breeze ghosted little surface eddies of snow.

No house was in sight, no tree, only

the arched wide surface of the earth

holding the pond and me under the sky.

I would go home, confront all my years, the tangled

events to come, and never know more than I did

that evening waving my arms in the lemon-colored light.

Stafford’s most memorable use of “hold” may have come not in a poem, but in a prose passage from his essay collection You Must Revise Your Life. He recalled a day and night he spent, as a teenager, alone on a bluff above the Cimarron River — an ecstatic moment of self-realization:

In the middle of the night I woke and saw a long, lighted passenger train slowly pulling across the far horizon. No sound. Steady stars. The morning was dim, sure, an imperceptible brightening of the sky with yellow, gray, orange, and then the powerful sun. That encounter with the size and serenity of the earth and its neighbors in the sky has never left me. The earth was my home; I would never feel lost while it held me.

“The earth” — not “western Kansas” — was William Stafford’s home. But western Kansas was where he felt most at home, because it was where he felt most on earth.