Tag: Process

Traveling (through the Dark) from Portland to Tillamook with William Stafford

To get to Tillamook, Oregon, head west from Portland and veer left onto Oregon Route 6. The next 50 miles are a winding, sometimes steep road that takes you up and over the Coast Range, through parts of the Tillamook Burn, following the Wilson River down into a valley full of dairy farms that supply the famous creamery. My relatives have lived in Tillamook for as long as I’ve been visiting them (more than 30 years now), and I’ve traveled this route more times than I can count.

I first fell in love with William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” when I read it in college. One of the most frequently taught and anthologized of his poems, I’m sure this poem was the first encounter with Stafford that thousands of other aspiring critics and poets had since its publication in 1962.

I may analyze poetry I read to pick up techniques and hone my craft, but the poems I love are frequently those with which I feel a more personal connection. (There are also hundreds of analyses of the poem online, so I won’t do so here.) Even though I liked “Traveling through the Dark” quite a lot, it didn’t become a favorite until I made that personal connection.

Reading You Must Revise Your Life just a few years ago, I learned that an experience on the same road between Portland and Tillamook that I’d traveled so many times had inspired Stafford to write the poem.

Rationally, I object to either the poet’s intent or biography influencing the value I place on a poem. It also seems downright silly that my “Oh, oh! I’ve been there!” reaction would influence my affection for a poem.

Nevertheless, the simple fact of shared experience with the poet makes William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” one of my most beloved poems.

James Joyce tweets from 1926

Clearly, I get blogging. For a writer, blogging seems the natural evolution of Samual Pepys’ diary. Even Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog. I don’t understand the attraction of Twitter, though, except perhaps as a target of satire. 140 characters? RT? @whocares? I think not.

Update: I changed my mind. You can now follow @AndrewBecraft on Twitter.

Historical Tweets combines witty writing with an appropriate sense of the absurd. For example, what result would Twitter’s arbitrary length limitation place on a lovably prolix writer like Joyce?

James Joyce tweets


Houses of the Holy

National Gallery & St. Martin-in-the-FieldsMy last day in England, I embarked upon a pilgrimage.

I took the Tube from Russell Square to Leicester Square, transferred to the Northern Line for one stop going south, and entered Trafalgar Square from Charing Cross.

Two nights earlier, I’d walked down in the dark, emerging between St. Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery at dusk, tossed unfamiliar coins in the great glass box and raced through the echoing halls until the docents herded me out with the tourists plodding at the end of their day and the young artists squeezing in one last brushstroke.

Friday morning, the sun glared off the marble. I walked down Whitehall past the Houses of Parliament, where I lingered in the shade behind the Jewel Tower.

Cloister - Westminster AbbeyI’d allotted just an hour or two for Westminster Abbey. I stepped through the door and picked up my audio guide, briefly considering the Japanese version, but allowed myself to be swayed toward English by the promise of “Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons” narrating the tour.

From number to number, I stepped clockwise through the hulking medieval architecture, past the gaudy tombs of the forgotten rich. I marveled at the twisted lid of King Henry V’s sarcophagus, lying as though discarded in the gloom behind the Coronation Chair.

Eventually, I turned into Poets’ Corner.

I hadn’t been inside a church in years, and the rest of Westminster Abbey certainly didn’t feel very ecclesiastical, despite the pause for prayer at noon. From a line of chairs facing away from the tombs, a little girl banged on the seat beside her and shouted at her brother, 「日本人はここに座るんだよ!」 I considered ascertaining what other unique cultural contrasts she’d been learning on her Grand Tour, but thought better of it.

Jeremy Irons trailed off in my headset, so I fumbled in my bag for my iPod. I looked up and Handel’s memorial caught my eye. “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs” from Messiah followed me as I jotted in my Moleskine the names of my favorite writers buried there — Thomas Hardy, Ben Jonson (buried upright), Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer (“Galfridus Chaucer”).

Turning around at Chaucer’s tomb, I looked down to see a black slab inscribed with the name THOMAS STEARNS ELIOT and the epitaph “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” I stood there and listened to Eliot’s own reading of “The Waste Land.” I must have looked odd, staring for 25 minutes at that slab, but on their rush through this less-than-spectacular section of the sprawling abbey, nobody else lingered long enough to notice.

Amid the swirl of tour groups and the silent tombs of my dead gods, the 30 minutes I spent in Poets’ Corner were the most numinous of my life.

Double-checking my facts as I write this now, fifteen months later, I’m instead embarrassed to find that the slab was merely a memorial. Eliot’s ashes are actually buried in East Coker, Somerset — more than a hundred miles west.

Sometimes, even false assumptions can lead to important moments that linger and inspire.

Geographic memory

I’m in Redding, California now visiting my wife Beth’s parents, who moved here earlier this year. It’s an odd feeling, coming back decades later and still having geographic memory about where things are.

Dad pointed me to his old house on Victor Ave, which is still a dentist’s office today (Grandpa & Grandma sold it to a dentist back in the 70s). I stood in the parking lot on Sunday morning as he pointed out the bedroom he shared with his older brother, where he stuffed towels under the door so he could read late into the night.

Cow Creek BridgeWith a little help from my mom (“Head east on 44 and turn left…”) and the Internet (pictures…from space!), I managed to find the old ranch in Millville, east of Palo Cedro. I recognized it right away from the white fence behind the house.

What’s even odder, I realized on the drive back into town, is that Grandpa & Grandma moved from Millville into Palo Cedro by the time we visited in 1984, so my very clear memory of where the ranch was and what it looked like dates all the way back to 1979.

Beth took a picture of me next to Cow Creek, where Grandpa pulled me out of the water after I’d stepped off the shallow shoal into the deceptively deep (for a five-year-old) main channel. I wrote a poem about that a few years ago, and I now have a few more details to add from the unchanged scene I saw today, 30 years later.

I called my brother Nathan from the shopping complex where Grandpa & Grandma B got their groceries, which still has an odd windmill structure I described to Beth even before we saw it come up next to the highway. It’s a Verizon store now.

We went up to the dam at Whiskeytown this afternoon (we did Shasta Dam yesterday), and stopped for a few minutes among the ruins of Shasta — exactly as I remember them, despite several recent fires that swept through the area.


Ultimately, the only place I’ve been unable to find here in Redding is that little Mexican restaurant Grandpa used to take us to, La Casita, I think. The only La Casita in the area is way out in Weaverville, 40 miles east. Redding has changed a lot in the last twenty to thirty years, but nearly all the places I remember — and even some new ones, like my father’s childhood home — remain essentially unchanged.