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William Stafford’s Poem Comes To Life In A Painting

Artist Chris Haberman

Artist Chris Haberman

Katrina Sarson/OPB

Artist Chris Haberman remembers the moment that sparked his love for the literary arts. It happened in his third-grade classroom, where they had been preparing all week for a visit by Oregon Poet Laureate William Stafford.

“He had glasses on and he looked Oregon. He looked like he was going fishing,” says Haberman. “It’s almost like he was gonna pull out a saw and start playing. It was really folksy.”

The students’ desks were lined up in rows, but not for long.

“He walked in and he quickly took apart all the desks and had us sit in a circle and he read to us and we all sat on the floor. It was really inspiring. I’ll always remember the whole day. It was really amazing,” says Haberman.

Haberman started writing poetry and eventually received a master’s degree in literature. His interest in writing grew into a passion for the visual arts. Today, he is an artist and an owner of the gallery, the Peoples Art of Portland. In 2009, Haberman interpreted Stafford’s poem “An Oregon Message” into a painting which now resides on the Oregon Art Beat set.

"An Oregon Message," by Chris Haberman

“An Oregon Message,” by Chris Haberman

Katrina Sarson/OPB

Haberman says he made the painting “as childish as possible,” because he was a child when he first read Stafford’s works. He hopes his painting will inspire other children to learn more about the poet and the poem.

Stafford won a National Book Award in 1963 and taught at Lewis and Clark College from 1948-1980. In 1970, he was appointed to a national position that is now known as Poet Laureate.

“I like the fact that he was an academic, but also a regular person. He liked things to be really accessible,” continues Haberman. “As kind of a natural poet, he also has a real good sense of humor.”

Stafford penned “An Oregon Message” in 1987, during the Cold War. Haberman believes the Cold War colored the poem.

“William Stafford is almost like Oregon’s Robert Frost to me. But this poem was really different,” says Haberman. “It was almost his communist poem, a little bit. It’s almost like a military message.”

Rockets soar in both the visual and written “An Oregon Message” to symbolize change coming to our state, says Haberman.

“Poems, like paintings, are glimpses of time.”

He believes Stafford wanted to protect Oregon from outside intrusions, something that resonates with Haberman.

“I think that his poem overall is dark and I think it’s really celebratory too. ’Cause I feel the same way; I feel like we want to keep Oregon the way it is and we don’t want people to move here,” says Haberman.

Haberman says he created a bright painting to illustrate our private Oregon mecca. The painting embodies Mount Hood, the forest and the spotted owl to echo the poet’s fierce loyalty to Oregon’s natural wonders. That loyalty is exemplified when Stafford writes about pulling “the trees in around us.”

Written almost 30 years ago, Stafford’s message about Oregon being our secret refuge still rings true today, continues Haberman.

“We have this secret-like hovel that we’ve always protected from the outside world. It’s so magical here, he felt that.”

To learn more about William Stafford, tune in to “Discovering William Stafford: An Oregon Art Beat Special” on Thursday, January 16 at 8 p.m. on OPB TV and to Think Out Loud on Friday, January 17 at noon & 8 p.m. on OPB Radio.

An Oregon Message, by William E. Stafford

When we first moved here, pulled   
the trees in around us, curled   
our backs to the wind, no one   
had ever hit the moon—no one.
Now our trees are safer than the stars,   
and only other people’s neglect   
is our precious and abiding shell,
pierced by meteors, radar, and the telephone.

From our snug place we shout
religiously for attention, in order to hide:   
only silence or evasion will bring
dangerous notice, the hovering hawk
of the state, or the sudden quiet stare   
and fatal estimate of an alerted neighbor.

This message we smuggle out in   
its plain cover, to be opened   
quietly: Friends everywhere—
we are alive! Those moon rockets   
have missed millions of secret   
places! Best wishes.

Burn this.

All poems Copyright 1954, © 1960, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1973, 1977, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1998 by William Stafford and the Estate of William Stafford.
Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of the William Stafford Family Trust.

Chris Haberman William Stafford An Oregon Message

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