One of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, William Stafford is a peacemaker, a lover, a teacher and a giver. His first book Down in My Heart: Peace Witness in War Time, published in 1947, is a testament to the righteous courage & uncompromising integrity that allowed such a stunning poet to emerge.
Each chapter of the book is preluded with a poetic setting the scene, “fur of winter for the hurt mind,” which contrasts great beauty with the horror of war and destruction.
No one knew, in that spell while war came on in the 1930’s – no one knew how civilization would find ways to destroy itself.
Down in My Heart is inspiring to artists like us who are working for a life of peace and justice. The story of Stafford’s time spent as a conscientious objector during WWII is told with wisdom and humility, from the clear perspective of a young poet who was marginalized for his beliefs, during a very difficult time -when men were forced to fight war, go to jail or go to camp.
In the book, Stafford lives in a camp as a Civilian Public Service laborer, doing intense work such as fighting fires. He also recognizes that his fate is easy compared to people like the Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Down in My Heart is that the book is in’t didactic. Like many of Stafford’s poems, this testament presents life-giving images of tenderness, humanity and generosity, in contrast to the mainstream narrative of male white dominance. Stafford states his convictions of non-violence resistance and his position of working toward a peaceable kingdom & common good for all.
We met continual frustration and every magazine, newspaper, movie or stranger was a challenge to convictions that were our personal, inner creations.
In the face of taunts and tormentors from those who could not understand the refusal to kill, Stafford tells how the COs remained non-violent, silent, thoughtful, prayerful, and artistic.
Almost always the tormentor is at a loss unless he can provoke a belligerent reaction as an excuse for further pressure or violence.
Down in My Heart demonstrates how the work of non-violence is done by listening – an activity akin to mysticism in this book – which allows understanding and consensus building to occur.
As the conscientious objector camp director says after Stafford and his friends were attacked by an angry mob for painting, reading, and writing poems:
“I know you men think the scene was funny, in spite of its danger; and I suppose there’s no harm in having fun out of it; but don’t think that our neighbors here in Arkansas are hicks just because they see you as spies and dangerous men. Just remember that our government is spending millions of dollars and hiring the smartest men in the country to devote themselves full time just to make everyone act that way.” -22
This statement eerily foretells of the monstrousness capitalist war machine, which still works hard to suppress equality, sustainability, pacifism, and opposition to violence.
The hero of Down in My Heart is Stafford’s friend George: George, you see, lived for a life of reconciliation, of kindness, of governing the mind and its retributive feelings.
When the war is finally over, George tells us to maintain our consciences,
“’But how long will it be before all the soldiers still alive can come back?’ George reminded us. ‘Before there’s no more fighting anywhere, no more intimidation of people in their own homes by strange uncomprehending men in foreign uniforms with foreign speech and foreign money.’” – 81
Stafford drives home the importance of being non-violent pacifists and devoting our lives to good causes always – not just when there’s war.
“I felt then, while listening to George, how good it would be—he made me see it—if that stretch of street could remain forever closed to automobiles, if for six blocks of a city’s shopping center people could again have spaciousness. If they could sometimes get that feeling we often got on the truck, rolling along through the open country, gesturing broadly around at the mountains and the tall trees, knowing that we could relax with friends and confess our doubts, fears, ambitions and confusions—and that just over the hill was the back country, or rebellion, or any other adventure endless with possibility and serenity.” -83
William Stafford shares the ecstasy of being alive & the longing of those of us who wish for a sustainable way of life and and a future where we slow down and take better care of ourselves and nature.
The 2006 of Down in My Heart contains a moving introduction by William Stafford’s son, Kim Stafford:
Sometimes decisions seem impossible. Enemies of peace abound. “Justice will take us millions of intricate moves.” And yet—and yet, there is a clarity. By writing, or living a local life, we cherish simple things. In quiet, we honor the feelings found down in our hearts. We think our own thoughts, and go our own ways. We are accountable—to society, to friends, to nature, and to the natural processes of imagination and vision that no government can legislate—and so we are free.
Down in My Heart reminds us of the great poem by Maine poet Edna St. Vincent Millay:Conscientious Objector I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death. I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor. He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning. But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth. And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg up. Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which way the fox ran. With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp. I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll. I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies either. Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man’s door. Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to Death? Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me: Shall you be overcome. -Edna St. Vincent Millay
And here’s a poem by William Stafford from The Darkness Around Us is Deep:Allegiances It is time for all the heroes to go home if they have any, time for all of us common ones to locate ourselves by the real things we live by. Far to the north, or indeed in any direction, strange mountains and creatures have always lurked: elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders—we encounter them in dread and wonder, But once we have tasted far streams, touched the gold, found some limit beyond the waterfall, a season changes, and we come back, changed but safe, quiet, grateful. Suppose an insane wind holds the hills while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears, we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love where we are, sturdy for common things.