Every January, poetry lovers around the world gather to celebrate the life and work of one of Oregon’s most gifted and influential poets, William Stafford. The late poet laureate’s 102nd birthday will be celebrated with music, warm memories and lots of poetry at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, in the SOU Hannon Library’s Meese Meeting Room No. 305. The event is free and open to the public. 

Patricia Wixon, host of the celebration and a board member of both the Friends of William Stafford and the Friends of Hannon Library which sponsor the event, says this year offers a stellar list of local talent. Cellist and composer Daniel Sperry will begin the program singing two poems by Stafford. This year’s featured poets include Claudia Alick, James Anderson, Kim Hamilton, Dan Kauffman, Kathleen Pyle and Steve Dieffenbacher.

“This is a great opportunity for people to become familiar with William Stafford and to hear some wonderful local writers,” Wixon said. 

The featured poets will each read a Stafford poem and then share one of their own poems. Audience members are later invited to read a favorite William Stafford poem and share stories of their connections with the poet or his work. The program will conclude with a film excerpt of William Stafford reading and talking about his writing. Stafford was a strong supporter of other writers and often encouraged them to read their own work at his readings.

“We have the poets read one of their own poems because that’s what William Stafford would do. It’s a great way to honor him and highlight the work the poets,” said Wixon. 

William Stafford was a prolific writer who published more than 70 volumes of poetry, including “Traveling Through the Dark,” which won a National Book Award. He served as Oregon’s Poet Laureate for 15 years, and taught at Lewis & Clark College for more than 30 years. His poetry is read worldwide. 

Although Stafford died in 1993, his work continues to resonate. Kathleen Pyle, one of the event’s featured poets, says Stafford’s poems uniquely express a moment or mood. “It’s like he was a doctor who held a stethoscope to the world and listened to its heart beat,” said Pyle. “One of the most powerful things in Stafford’s poetry is his ability, in simple language, to capture the spirit of a place.” One such place is the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “There’s a beautiful Stafford poem about Malheur that a lot of people are talking about lately,” Pyle said. Stafford’s poem titled “Malheur Before Dawn” paints a peaceful picture of the refuge, in contrast to recent news headlines about armed occupiers in the area. 

Pyle adds that the Stafford celebration is an ideal chance for people to connect over poetry. “Stafford’s work is for everyone, his poems aren’t flowery or distant. I really respond to his utter lack of pretension. His poems resonate in some way with all of us.” 

Both Wixon and Pyle say that a favorite aspect of the Stafford celebrations is the chance to hear other writers read his work. “I like hearing new voices read Stafford’s poems. The poems still speak to people and when you hear someone different reading them, you get another layer of meaning no matter how many times you’ve heard the poem,” said Wixon. 

Wixon says she hopes that people who aren’t familiar with Stafford or who aren’t necessarily poetry lovers will come to the celebration. “I’d like people to feel connected with Stafford and with poetry in a way they may not have before. Poetry can have a place in your life, it can articulate a single thought or idea that stays with you forever,” she said. 

The Hannon Library is on the Southern Oregon University campus at 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland. For more information, call 541-552-6816 or email libraryevents@sou.edu.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Angela Decker at decker4@gmail.com.