(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The source for much of the tension in many of Stafford’s finest poems is his discovery that what the human world is trying to be is frequently antithetical to what the nonhuman world—that of wildness—was, is, or would be exclusive of urbanization and technological advancement. Consequently, readily apparent in all of Stafford’s earlier collections of poetry is a traditional pastoralism, itself comprising conflicts between forest and city, between ruralism and urbanism, between childhood and adulthood. For Stafford the past always seems to glow with a richness that magnifies as superficial the features of the present. Thus one opens the present collection with certain expectations of this poet; but Stafford’s revisionary impulse is strangely muted here, his characteristic poet-as-guide role apparently abandoned.

Certainly there are here numerous typically Staffordesque poems: “The Origin of Country” and “Atavism,” to name two, the first recalling a boy’s discovery of his sense of place on the Midwest plains, and the latter celebrating the mental exercise of imagining a reversal of evolution to reconnect oneself to wilderness so a “walk through the forest strokes your fur.”

This collection, however, lacks unity and coherence. One senses that Stafford put these poems together because he had written them rather than because they belonged together for thematic or even aesthetic reasons. Praised for his artistic use of plain speech, here Stafford frequently seems to rely more on that speech than on imagery, the essential ingredient of poetry. Unfortunately the poetic bonuses in this collection are few.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, May 15, 1991, p. 1775.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 21, 1991, p. 16.

Library Journal. CXVI, May 15, 1991, p. 86.

The Oregonian. April 28, 1991, p. C2.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, March 29, 1991, p. 87.

Rocky Mountain News. December 22, 1991, p. M17.

Washington Times. July 15, 1991, p. F2.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Every style is a system of inclusions and exclusions. This is most easily seen at the level of subject matter: The ecological lore of Gary Snyder would seem bizarrely out of place in a poem by Robert Creeley. The poet’s tone and rhythm, music or lack of it, his lexicon and his arsenal of favorite devices—all this and more figures in as well, yet a style cannot be reduced to the sum of its characteristics.

Both in poetry and prose, William Stafford has described the distinctive approach to his art that shapes his particular system of inclusions and exclusions. A concise statement of that credo can be found under the title “Some Notes on Writing,” prefacing his collection An Oregon Message (1987). The statement begins on a combative note that belies its unassuming title:

My poems are organically grown, and it is my habit to allow language its own freedom and confidence. The results will sometimes bewilder conservative readers and hearers, especially those who try to control all emergent elements in discourse in the service of predetermined ends.

Who are these “conservative” autocrats, and how do they attempt to exercise their stifling control? The reader is left to fill in the blanks as Stafford moves on to define his own sense of poetry. “Each poem,” he declares, “is a miracle that has been invited to happen.” If that claim seems unguarded, loaded with hubris, Stafford is quick to add that these particular poems “must survive as they were made, by the reckless impulse of a fallible but susceptible person. I must be fallible in order to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.”

Start with the Romantic notion of the poet as “A Priest of the Imagination”—the title of a lecture by Stafford included in his book You Must Revise Your Life (1986). Add a Surrealist emphasis on the relation between poetry and dreams and a Zen discipline to cultivate spontaneity. Then there is an affinity with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s investigations of language. The resulting picture would not resemble Stafford himself so much as one of those children’s entertainments in which the head of an ostrich can be joined to the body of a gorilla and the feet of a penguin. Yet each one of those perspectives provides insight into what Stafford is about. And at the same time Stafford’s fierce populism must be factored into the equation. For Stafford, “an artist is someone who lets the material talk back,” and poetry is “language with a little luck in it,” potentially accessible “on the individual wavelength of any human being.”

These commitments yield poems with a radically simplified vocabulary and a corresponding reduction of the devices that have traditionally distinguished poetry from prose. In Stafford’s formulation, it is poetry that “grows from daily experience rather than from literary experience.” It is easy—looking, for example, at the blandly prosaic title poem of Passwords—to see what Stafford has given up in following “the little god who speaks only to me,” easy to see what risks he runs. But what has he gained?

Like other Stafford collections, Passwords resembles the haiku...

(The entire section is 1318 words.)