The Power of Words

Words, words, between the lines of age

Neal Young


Words are powerful things. They can build, heal, or destroy a relationship. They can cure a hurting soul, or they can sicken someone bringing them as low as they might possibly reach. They can bind, they can separate, they can strengthen, or they can cut one to the quick so that it feels one’s soul is letting out blood. As powerful as words are, as creative as human beings can be with them, what they do not do is create reality itself. That is not to say that their power in any way should be diminished or discounted. Indeed, their power allows us to get in touch with the reality of living that we must confront every day of our lives. They reflect and accent one’s love for another. They do not create that love, but they sure can celebrate it in beautiful ways. They accent and disclose one’s hatred, but words flow from hate; they do not create it. Love, hatred, personal and interpersonal pain and ecstasy are what humans show and do. The power of words used in beautiful and passionate ways, especially by those who are skilled at using them, reflect the multitude of human experiences we undergo. It’s always a magnificent experience to read those who can use them so majestically. In fact, from my own belief system, I strongly believe that the power with which human beings utilize words emerges for the Imago Dei stamped on human and natural existence. Therein, lies their power whose source is the Word.

Words and Thought

I enjoy reading poetry. I neither claim nor desire to be a critic, so I’m not sure what an expert in reading poetry is all about. I simply know that there are those poets and poems that I stumble across and find interesting, enjoyable, and thought provoking. For me such discoveries are quite by accident. Have you ever come across some words that the way they’re put together strike a chord in you that just makes you think about things? You find yourself pondering those words again and again, particularly how they speak to your experience of things, what they may describe, or what emotions they bring up in you. I want to talk about that experience in this blog. There will be a couple of passages from some poems I’ve been reading that I will discuss authored by a poet I came across whom I enjoy and spend time reading, both his poetry and his essays on writing poetry. But more to the point, I want to talk about the experience of the ways that words can impact us, sending us off on journeys in the mind that we may not have travelled if we hadn’t come across some specific writings.

Words are powerful things that can carry joy, humor, pain, and a host of other experiences. They can also paint a picture and carve a trail of thought that we use to trace out the meaning of things. I’m sure that some poetic passages lead us to think about things that the author never intended. Perhaps the author simply intended to make us think about whatever. Nonetheless, I enjoy the experience of coming across a passage, or even a line of a writing, that sticks with me and carries me on a journey within my own thoughts. Having been a therapist for the last twenty or so years, I think poetry can grant us some insights into human struggle and existence. I know that sounds odd in these days of empirically validated treatments and insurance panels, but a lot of the fight that clients are carrying on when they enter therapy are the ones that make up what Hannah Arendt called the human condition. Whether or not they need medication or some other sophisticated treatment, the struggles that make up life are there to be faced. I think artists in general, and writers and poets in particular, have ways of giving us a peek into human experience through words they use that reflect on this reality we call living.

William Stafford (1914-1993)

William Stafford is one of my favorite poets whom I’ve come across since I’ve become interested in reading poetry in recent years. Again, I’m neither a critic nor an expert on poetry. All I can say is that when I first read Traveling Through the Dark I was hooked and have since picked up several of Stafford’s compilations of poems along with a couple of his collections of essays where he talks about writing and working with students who want to become poets. He was Native American, and in World War II, he took the position of a conscientious objector. For those who like credentials, he was Oregon’s Poet Laureate in 1975. I’m not going to get into an explication of any particular poem as though I’m doing a class assignment. I’m simply going to offer a couple of lines from two of his poems that have struck me in a way that led me to reflect on things. I’ll ask you, if you so wish, to reflect on them for yourself as well.

In a poem titled, Reporting Back, Stafford ends the poem with a couplet:

Is there a way to walk that living has obscured?/(Our feet are trying to remember some path we are walking toward.) Both lines are meaningful to me, but it’s this last line in particular that he put in parentheses that I want to talk about.

In a poem titled, Vocation, Stafford describes a scene (real or not, who knows?) where he is standing between his parents and hearing his dad give this charge to him that makes up the last line of the poem:

Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.” I find these lines from these two poems to be powerful ones, particularly relating to such questions as: why am I here? Has life given me something specific to carry out? Or what is my personal calling?

Of course, a few lines from Stafford’s writings don’t do him justice, so before getting into my discussion, I want to say that I would strongly encourage anyone who likes poetry to delve into reading his works, both poetry and prose to see what you think. A few words about his life will shed some light on Stafford, the man.

As a conscientious objector, Stafford, for all practical purposes, was sentenced to working in Civilian Public Service camps, consisting of forestry an soil conservation in the states of Arkansas, California, and Illinois. For this work he earned a wage of $2.50 per month. His career as a poet began late, relatively speaking, at the age of forty-six. His first publication of poetry, Traveling Through the Dark, came out in 1963, for which he won the National Book Award for Poetry. He cites William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson as major influences on his style. His work has been compared to Robert Frost. In 1975, Stafford was named Poet Laureate of Oregon. For a number of years he taught poetry and creative writing at Lewis and Clark College. He retired his teaching position there in 1990. Robert Bly was a close friend and collaborated with Stafford on some writing projects. In 1992 Stafford won The Western States Book Award for lifetime achievement in poetry. Stafford’s style is conversational, his poems typically short, and he focuses much of the time on the earthy details of a specific setting. Working in the public service camps, he developed the habit of getting up early in the morning, writing poems before the beginning of the workday. He felt he needed the solitude for writing in those early morning hours before the sun rose. He continued this work habit for the rest of his life. In one interview, he described his life as a writer in the following manner:

I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know. Whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along.

Reporting Back

At different levels and with various intensities, we all set goals for our lives. We seek to establish some values by which we live out our lives. Some of us may think harder than others about the achievements we hope to accomplish. Whatever those goals, hopes, and aspirations we possess may entail, life has a way of throwing obstacles in our way. If those barriers to where we’re trying to head become too large and difficult, we can lose sight of our original goals and hopes for our lives. No doubt, life’s vagaries can help us clarify things and hone our thoughts in how we’re going about life. Other times, we can completely lose our vision while we’re tracking all that it takes to merely navigate the circumstances that surround us. We suddenly realize that we’ve been trudging through the world with blinders on. In a sudden clarifying moment, we may ask the question: how did I get off track? Simply through living, the way we wanted to walk – shape our lives – has become obscured. Something in our mind and body tells us that the way I’m going now is not the way I intended to go. We find ourselves standing before the universe trying to remember the path we hoped to carve out for ourselves. I think it’s interesting that Stafford says, .  .  . trying to remember some path we are walking toward. It’s not necessarily just some specific goal we’re shooting for, but a path we feel we’re supposed to be on. Perhaps a path indicates some journey we hope to take; it’s the way we want to live. While our journey will entail goals, accomplishments, and achievements, a path moreover entails a way of living, that is how we want to live. Stafford may be speaking to the values we hold, as much as the goals we accomplish. He was a witness for this idea in the way he lived, choosing public service labor for four years at $2.50 per month rather than serving in the war. His relatively late age at becoming a published poet indicates that Stafford found that way to walk and the path toward which he was walking. Some have reported that Stafford wrote some twenty-thousand poems, of which only about three-thousand were published. He maintained a diary into which he wrote daily, penning thousands of poems. Whether we are a writer, some other kind of artist, or whether we’re pursuing some other kind of work, I believe the path mentioned in the poem is less about our specific vocation, and more about how we go about living out our calling. I also believe that the question that Stafford poses in this poem is not one that we ask ourselves only once. It may be a question that is indeed a daily recollection as to where we’re heading and how we’re getting there. In the midst of any accomplishments I may achieve, any goals I may obtain, or any aspirations to which I aspire to reach, the resounding question is – Am I living how I want to live? It’s a constant daily struggle of awareness to keep in mind – to remember – that path we are walking toward. For Stafford it was a hidden river that he followed along trustingly. It carried him to the writing of thousands of poems, of which only a small percentage he sought to publish.


What is the world trying to be? Stafford sought out that question through various ways, not the least of which included his writing. There’s a take on life that holds that each of us as individuals have a specific calling we must find and embrace if we are to discover what the world is about. Others view the notion of calling in more general terms whereby one’s calling can be filled out in numerous ways. In this latter view, one’s calling is more about how one wants to live his or her life. I see these lines taken from the two poems cited as having similar takes on life. First, trying to comprehend what the world is trying to be is a difficult enough task, even when one is aware of what he is trying to do. But what we call the world has a way of knocking us about. We can become consumed by worldly things in a way that obscures how we truly want to live our lives. We can get caught up in the countless rat races that life and human interaction afford us. The world can do things to us that we weren’t expecting. Then it becomes our task to work through what happened to us. In doing so, we develop the ability to stand back from the world and observe it, even while we are still caught up in it. This ability to observe and develop our awareness allows us to question what events and circumstances are all about. People across the world are engaged in some kind of struggle to understand, to comprehend, and simply to stay alive. There’s a reality out there (not a popular notion these days) which we all must confront. There are ways in navigating that reality that are better than others if we want to live genuine and fruitful lives – another unpopular notion. We can take on the task of trying to find out what the world is trying to be or not. We can take on that challenge through our own personal calling and in our individual ways. Of course, we can move through life not giving a damn one way or the other. That’s a way of walking as well. But does lack of awareness have consequences? I believe it does. Does avoiding rather than taking on what life throws at us have consequences? I believe it does. In a postmodern age where rhetoric trumps reason, we are beginning to see those consequences. I believe the calling to be aware of how one wants to live is one of the most important challenges that face us. What is the world trying to be? How are people choosing to live? And what are the consequences of those choices?


Is the discussion that I offered here on Stafford’s writing what he had in mind for these two poems? I have no earthly idea. Stafford appeared to experience the consequences of living in alignment with his views as a conscientious objector. He also appears to be one who followed out that hidden river of his life. On the last day of his life, Willian Stafford rose early as he had developed the habit of doing in the Public Service camps, and wrote his last poem titled, Are You Mr. William Stafford? Some people call the poem prophetic. One of the lines in the poem has Stafford’s mother speaking where she says, You don’t have to prove anything. Just be ready for what God sends. There are a lot of good things that can be said about William Stafford if one chooses to know them through reading him and reading about him. One thing can be said for sure. Stafford was called to be a writer. And he lived out that calling to the end.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/March 14th, 2018