Austin Peay State University
Clarksville, TN – On a Wednesday morning in April, Kentucky journalist and author Carol Niswonger was busy combing through the archives at Austin Peay State University’s Woodward Library, conducting research for her new book on Land Between The Lakes, when she discovered something a bit unusual. Tucked away in a thin, manila folder was a short, hand-written poem titled “The Land Between the Rivers.”
“When I started to read it, I said, ‘that’s it perfectly,’” Niswonger said. “The poem, it epitomized the feelings of that area. It had such an emotional attachment to the land and the surroundings. I thought the poet was someone who lived there.”But Niswonger didn’t recognize the name signed at the bottom of the poem. Maybe it wasn’t by a local poet, she thought. So one afternoon, she decided to Google the name, “William Stafford.” That’s when she realized she might have discovered an original copy of a poem by one of the 20th century’s great American poets.
“There it was – William Stafford, poet extraordinaire,” she said. “It just can’t be him, I thought. It didn’t have written down there, ‘I am a famous poet.’”
Stafford, who died in 1993, was the 20th Poet Laureate of the United States and the author of 62 books of poetry. A non-profit organization, The Friends of William Stafford, maintains an extensive archive of the poet’s works and personal journals. Niwonger emailed the Oregon-based group a scanned copy of the poem, and Dennis Schmidling, the organization’s board chair, authenticated the handwriting as belonging to Stafford. The poem was also confirmed as being one of Stafford’s, published in the journal Plainsong, and in his collection, “An Oregon Message.”
“I was awe struck,” Scott Shumate, APSU digital services assistant, said. “It’s probably the biggest thing we’ve found. There’s so much here. The only time I get to look at a lot of it is when someone comes in to do research.”
Shumate works in the APSU archives room, which is tucked into a small office on the library’s second floor. Inside that room, file cabinets compete for space with crowded shelves of rare books, old newspapers and Austin Peay yearbooks dating back to the 1940s.
“I’ve had some fun surprises on the things I’ve found, but this takes the cake for sure,” Shumate said.
The poem was discovered among the papers of Dr. Joseph Henry, a former APSU professor who conducted extensive research on the Land Between The Lakes area. How exactly Stafford’s poem found its way into that collection is a bit of a mystery. What is known is that the poet visited APSU numerous times during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. And the handwritten poem was on the back of a poster, advertising a reading by Stafford on March 27th, 1981, at the APSU Wesley Foundation.
Dr. David Till, poet and emeritus professor of English at APSU, said Stafford had a close relationship with the University, and he usually delivered his readings to packed auditoriums of students and community members.
“He was early on one of the poets we brought to Austin Peay when Malcolm Glass and I started the visiting writers series,” Till said. “We liked him so well, and he liked us so well, we brought him back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. He was not just a good poet, he was a great moral force.”
The “gift” Stafford left APSU after that 1981 reading is a powerful, three-stanza poem in which the narrator mourns the flooding of his land to create the LBL natural area. The second stanza of the work begins, “Here’s where the house would be if I/had a son, if we owned the land, if the lake/hadn’t come.”
Now that the poem has been authenticated, Shumate said the library’s first priority is to preserve it.
“It had been folded all these years, so we’re going to try and flatten out that fold,” he said. “We’re also going to take care of things to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate over time. We’d like to show it off, but we want to make sure it’s properly preserved at first.”