Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1472
Five years earlier than the publication of A Glass Face in the Rain, a collected edition of William Stafford’s poems appeared. That publication, in 1977, did not mark for Stafford, as collected editions have for some poets, the end of his writing career. Steadily, in the intervening years, Stafford has continued to publish poems in a host of periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Harvard Magazine, Iowa Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, Spectrum, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Wallace Stevens Journal. The range of readership of the sixty-two periodicals in which the poems have appeared is impressive. The range of periodicals also illustrates how solidly Stafford has established himself in the realm of American poetry, surviving through several decades when the future of poetry was in doubt, especially the 1950’s, when the poetic situation in America was torn by widely disparate points of view with the practice of the Beat Generation on the one hand and the academic poets on the other. Stafford’s poetry, which critics have suggested has caught the best of both sides, continues to demonstrate the poet’s vigor, although he is well along in life and in his career.
William Stafford is a poet who celebrates life, who finds in life veritable wonder, joyous at times, awestruck at times, and always curious. Although he is a quietly friendly man himself, his poetry, including the poems collected for the first time in this volume, shows him to be something of a loner, a person who is not afraid of solitude, who is not afraid of facing himself as his only companion. He comes through to his readers as a man who, at least figuratively, can and does stride through life vigorously and independently, but well aware of other people and their independence. In the dedication of A Glass Face in the Rain, the poet remarks of the people who travel on parallel ways, known to one another only by smoke signals, and he says that his present volume is intended especially for those people. The poet looks to them because they have accepted their lives and the world about them. We must, suggests Stafford, each go through the world leaving unmistakable, yet unobtrusive smoke signals for one another, recognizing one another’s existence without placing obligation on one another, sharing independence and respecting one another.
Little incidents in life are important; that is one of the messages Stafford’s poetry frequently suggests, even insists, to the reader. For example, in the first poem of the collection, “How It Began,” he portrays carefully, vividly, in ten lines of controlled verse, the taking into his care and to a friend’s home of a litter of black, white, and gray puppies, blind and hungry, after their mother had died. He rejoices in the living quality of the puppies and passes that enthusiasm for life on to the reader. Part 1 of the volume is entitled “A Touch on Your Sleeve” and includes an individual poem by that title. This poem also illustrates the poet’s use of the small but important experience. In the poem, a dandelion puff, carried by the air from afar, brushes a sleeve as it descends to earth, falling like snow and suggesting, writes Stafford, that life has become important again just through that tiny happening.
In part 2 of the volume, entitled “Things That Come,” Stafford has included poems that reflect the hardness of life, the cruelty that can occur in the human experience. One such poem, “Murder Bridge,” seems to reflect an incident that happened in the poet’s home state of Oregon some years ago, when a young woman and her lover dashed the woman’s children to death on the rocks of the steep, deep canyon of the Crooked River. Recollecting the place he once visited, the persona of the poem reflects on how life requires luck and cannot be considered easy, though later at the site of the crimes, all is quiet while the rocks seem to dream in the sun. In a somewhat similar fashion, he suggests of occurrences in “Seeing and Perceiving” that we must learn to appreciate what life presents to us to perceive through the sense of sight. He mentions the pattern of a crooked tree branch, the way of a knotted string, the wing of a bird flying home. We learn, he suggests, by clinging to these sights as bits of form, as bits of light reflected by the sympathy of our sight.
Part 3 of the collection celebrates William Stafford’s belief in the connections among human beings, the ways in which communication is established between poet and reader, for which there is no accounting in an ordinary sense. The first poem in this grouping is “Glass Face in the Rain,” the title poem of the volume. The short set of three stanzas gives the poet room enough to suggest how, when we are gone from the earth in some future time, for those who remember us we may return, somehow, invisibly, but still there and real, as glass faces in the rain.
The poet also celebrates the meaning of communication, suggesting that everything, ourselves included, is a message through the universe, as in the poem “A Message from Space.” He writes that we know by living, even though we may not know how to live. He suggests that we human beings build huge antennas aimed at the stars beyond our solar system, not realizing that we, human beings, are the message: “Everything counts. The message is the world.” Related to this theme is “A Course in Creative Writing,” a poem stemming from the poet’s experience of many years as a teacher of creative writing, most of them at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. He notes the irony of the students’ wish to have a wilderness in which to work, a new world to explore, but that at the same time they wish to have a map of that wilderness, to have the teacher explain and show them the way. As Stafford says, however, it cannot be that way. Rather, the writer must sing a song, whistle a little tune, walk along with the new experience, finding a world beginning under the map of the work one creates.
Part 4 of this collection is called “Troubleshooting.” This is a series of poems which have some basis in the poet’s past, some memory or group of memories which he brings to life for himself and to his readers. In one of the poems, he utilizes a memory of accompanying his father on trips to repair rural telephone lines; in another poem, he recalls hitchhiking one wintry night in Montana during the 1940’s; in a third poem, he recollects himself as a young man in 1935, standing at dusk in traffic with his bike on a street named Lakeside Drive; a fourth example recalls his chiding of a younger brother for crying while waiting one cold afternoon for the older boy to finish playing hockey with his friends.
In the last series of poems in this volume the poet begins by tentatively welcoming his readers, saying that he offers his poems with no claims for them beyond his acknowledgement of their being his own. He tells the reader that he has found some trancelike events which he has turned into things to tell. He comments, “If you like them, fine. If not, farewell.” In one of the poems he recalls some of the little things that he did during a stay on a fire lookout within sight of Mt. Shasta: eating breakfasts of animal crackers and milk out of a blue bowl, sitting on the deck of the lookout reading Leo Tolstoy’s Voina i mir (1868-1869, War and Peace), Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-1850) and Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927). He sums it up, in a Thoreau-like way, by saying that he balanced his life there in the wilderness for a year, then washed the breakfast bowl and returned to life in civilization once again. Taking a longer look at life, he tells the reader that life is faint and that little is done, but he adds that he wants us to be easy when he is gone and let the stars go on.
William Stafford has continued the poetic way that he began years ago, a strict way for a poet, disciplining himself to write in a careful manner. His metrics are seldom obvious, his word pictures are carefully delineated in spare, even lean, language, with each word and phrase well-chosen to carry its share of literal and metaphorical meaning. It is the way he chose early in his career and has continued into the present volume, which is the work of a professional in the truest and best sense of the term.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24
Christian Century. C, March 23, 1983, p. 279.
Georgia Review. XXXVI, Winter, 1982, p. 911.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, March 13, 1983, p. 6.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, August 27, 1982, p. 351.