William Stafford Essay - Critical Essays

William Stafford American Literature Analysis

When once asked what made him start writing poetry, Stafford replied, “What made you stop?” This rather cagey answer reveals several of his most basic assumptions about poetry. First, for Stafford, poetry is not a specialized endeavor limited to an elite few. It is a natural activity available to anyone. Second, the value of poetry lies not in the success of the final product—which is no doubt why most people do stop writing—but rather in the creative process.

In You Must Revise Your Life (1986), Stafford speaks eloquently about trusting the creative process: “At times in my thinking I take my hands off the handlebars and see what happens. In a poem I do that all the time. I let the total momentum of the experience dictate the direction the poem goes.” Relinquishing control of the poem, letting it find its own direction, engenders a process of discovery that Stafford finds most valuable. Indeed, this openness to surprises is central to his poetry. To begin with a plan and then execute it would, in Stafford’s view, kill the poem. Poetry comes alive in the readiness to accept whatever the imagination, the world, the language itself might offer.

Stafford’s poems offer ample evidence of the worth of this approach. His work is full of surprises for writer and reader alike; when a Stafford poem begins one can never be sure where it will end. Nor is Stafford reluctant to break conventions. For example, nature is often humanized in his poetry: “The green of leaves calls out,” “Trees hunch their shoulders,” and “a bird says ’Hi!,’” for example.

Stafford ignores the strict modern censure of the pathetic fallacy with a childlike delight not to be found in other poets of his generation. That his work is so varied and unpredictable makes it difficult to generalize about him. His poetry does contain certain recurring themes, however, such as memory and the passing of time, concern about nuclear annihilation, the evocative power of the wilderness and its potential destruction, and, most prominently, a desire to be at home in the world, attentive and receptive both to the inner life and the outer environment, which Stafford once called the “two rivers of my life.” Broadly stated, Stafford’s most inclusive concern is “learning how to live.”

For Stafford, learning how to live consists primarily of learning how to be receptive to the world and how to interpret its messages. Like William Wordsworth, Stafford views the world as charged with meaning. The poem “Sophocles Says” (1966) begins: “History is a story God is telling/ by means of hidden meanings written closely/ inside the skins of things.” The poet’s task is to penetrate the surfaces of things to discover their underlying meanings. In this sense, Stafford rejects the modernist view that nature is simply a nonhuman otherness with nothing to tell humans about themselves. Instead, he insists, “everything that happens is the message.” In such a world, “everything counts,” whether it is a nuclear bomb test, a snowstorm, or a cocktail party. The crucial point is to see the reality beneath the experience. Such “seeing” allows one to learn how to live in harmony with the world and, by implication, with God.

Stafford often expresses this harmony in images of home. Home for Stafford is not a specific place but an attitude of mind, a passive welcoming of process. Just as he believes that poems should unfold as they wish, without too much pressure from the poet, so too does he suggest that to live rightly is to let life unfold without trying to control or manipulate it. Images of wind and rivers, of going with rather than against their motions, embody the value he places on passive receptiveness.

The antithesis to this receptive, passive stance Stafford locates in its exact opposite: war. War is active, aggressive, and most often an attempt to manipulate the world rather than understand it. Fears of war, nuclear holocaust, and encroaching destruction of the wilderness appear throughout his poems. In “Cover Up” (1991), he writes: “don’t worry about the mountains;/ and some trees even might survive, looking/ over a shoulder from places too cold for us.” Because Stafford sees all life as having spirit—“there is a spirit abiding in everything”—destruction of the natural world, through war or development, appears as the most grotesque consequence of having failed to learn how to live harmoniously.

Still, Stafford’s poetry as a whole is hopeful, playful, generous, sympathetic, and filled with a kind of wisdom rarely achieved and, even more rarely, so beautifully expressed. His style is colloquial but tight and quirky, full of sudden turns. His poems are always accessible and, indeed, inviting to the reader; he wishes to be understood. Clearly, too, Stafford’s faith in the creative process has led him to many discoveries, and he is not reluctant to share those discoveries, or even, at times, to offer friendly advice. In “Freedom” (1973), he writes: “If you are oppressed, wake up about/ four in the morning: most places,/ you can usually be free some of the time/ if you wake up before other people.” In “The Little Ways That Encourage Good Fortune” (1973), he warns: “If you have things right in your life/ but do not know why,/ you are just lucky, and you will not move/ in the little ways that encourage good fortune.” Readers of Stafford will find themselves fortunate to follow the path of a poet who learned so well how to live.

“Traveling Through the Dark”

First published: 1962 (collected in Traveling Through the Dark, 1962)

Type of work: Poem

The poet finds a dead deer on a mountain road and faces a painful dilemma.

“Traveling Through the Dark” is Stafford’s most famous, most often anthologized poem. It is somewhat atypical, as it tells a story about a real experience in a fairly straightforward way. Yet in its underlying concern with nature—in this case, a deer found dead in the road—with humans’ invasion of the wilderness, and with the individual’s responsibility to do what is right “for us all,” the poem reveals some of Stafford’s abiding themes.

“Traveling Through the Dark” achieves its power by subtly blending the symbolic and the real and by seeing underneath the surface event to its larger consequences. The title...

(The entire section is 2635 words.)