In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem "At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border" by William Stafford.

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Poetry to the Brim - Episode 5: “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border” by William Stafford
In this episode, Alan reads and discusses the poem “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border” by William Stafford. --- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/poetrytothebrim/support

Transcript

Hello everyone. You're listening to Poetry to the Brim.

Today I'll be reading the poem "At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border" by William Stafford. I found this one in the book, The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems, published in 1998.

I chose this poem because it's quite befitting for the current state of the world, namely the war going on in Ukraine, and so I hope we can learn something from it together.

Alright, so without further ado.

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"At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border" by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed—or were killed—on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

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So two characteristics I noticed in the poem that are rather typical of Stafford's poems here are his clear, plain-speaking style as well as his wise calls for peace. William Stafford was born in Kansas in 1914 and so he lived between both world wars, which seemed to greatly influence his work.

Something I noticed in the poem also is how tight the form is. It's a short but powerful poem, with just two five-line stanzas. Four pairs of lines have perfect end-rhymes: "die" / "sky" and "hands" / "stands" in the first stanza and "sound" / "ground"  and "tame" / "name" in the second. Then there's the slant rhyme between "happen" and "open" across the two stanzas that seem to connect them. The tone is quite elegiac in my opinion: there's a sort of seriousness, as well as a sense of longing for what could be or could've been.

So typically national monuments are erected for us to remember a place, but in this poem Stafford describes a forgotten place (in this case a field along the Canadian border) as a monument and suggests its beauty consists of all the things that did not happen there. I love how Stafford uses what didn't happen or the counterfactuals to make sense of what does happen all too often, like wars; much like an architect relies as much on space and thus what's not materially present to situate and order what is. By speaking about what does not happen in the field in  the poem, he is able to speak to what happens all too often in other fields, where "unknown soldier[s]" die and the grass does not join hands.

The line "the only heroic thing is the sky" is great. It surprises us as readers because we typically think of people as heroes, not inanimate skies. Heroes and nation states inscribe themselves into history books that valorize this over that: this land over that land, this race over that race, and so on. However, heroism is logically coherent if and only if we presuppose individuals and the groups to which they belong exist as separate entities in the world. Put differently, the presupposition of separation is necessary in order for us to believe the reality or separate significance of a hero. The hero must be set in relief from the non-heroes. The line "the only heroic thing is the sky" challenges the status of ordinary heroes of war. Such heroes only exist if war happens; while wars happen in human life, in the field of the poem, war does not happen.

The last three lines of the poem are just incredible: "No people killed—or were killed—on this ground / hallowed by neglect and an air so tame / that people celebrate it by forgetting its name." Stafford uses "killed" twice to emphasize all the killing that did not happen. And then, wow, "Hallowed by neglect and an air so tame / that people celebrate it by forgetting its name." The irony in that last line is magnificent. What's forgotten often is what should really be hallowed. Also while "neglect" is a word typically with a negative connotation, Stafford uses it in an interestingly positive way—suggesting that perhaps to leave things as they are may be the most sacred of all acts. This view is in contrast to the typical manner in which most of us move through life: on an individual level, we try to change the world to fit what we desire; and on a collective level, there is the combative, colonizing mindset of nation states like Russia , the endless bickering of identity politics, the focus on competition in the business world and so on. This combative, resisting mindset is in direct contrast to true peace, the non-separative nature of Being.

In summary, I think Stafford's poem questions typical heroism and the peace that seems to be won or fought for. If we could start again from first principles and understand why we fight to begin with—the foundations of violence and the presupposition of separation required—then we could maybe live in this world with true peace. A world where in some essential way this land is the same as that land, and you, dear listener, are the same as me. To me, this poem yearns for that—for something truly "heroic," as the sky.

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"At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border" by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed—or were killed—on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

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So that's all I had for the poem portion of the show, but in the spirit of our times I wanted to mention something: I will be leaving a link in the show notes for this episode on the website for you to donate to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to help the millions of refugees currently being displaced from Ukraine. I think donating to that cause would be a great way to follow through after this episode.

Or if you prefer this, there's an art sale by Robert Del Naja, also known as 3D, of the English band Massive Attack. They're one of my favorite bands. All proceeds of that art sale go directly towards the IRC, less the shipping cost. I myself got one of the prints last week and it should be coming in about a month or so, so I'm really excited to receive it.

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Thanks for listening to Poetry to the Brim. If you read the poem differently and would like to share your thoughts, or you have general suggestions about the show, I'd love to hear. Feel free to message me on Twitter (@acyanlight) or Instagram (@acyanlight), or email the show at poetrytothebrim@gmail.com.

Also, you can find a full transcript of the episode on the website at podcast.poetrytothebrim.com. There, you can also subscribe to stay up to date by email for when I release a new episode, and find ways to support the show.

Alright. Thanks again! Until next time.

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Show Notes

Further Reading

Citations

  1. Stafford, William. "At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border." The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems, Graywolf Press,  MN. 1998.