Passwords

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 293

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.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Passwords Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

Passwords

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1318

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 journals of classical Japanese poetry. The poems in Passwords are short; only a handful run on to a second page, and many consist of no more than ten or twelve lines. Cumulatively they have an imperturbable air that can be both admirable and provoking—an aggressive diffidence.

A typical poem in the collection is “Daydreams.” Divided into three stanzas of six lines each, the poem records three daydreams, each stanza begins with the words “In my dream of….” The first stanza is a dream of the city: “I stride with commuters. We carry folded newspapers to read.” In this stanza the details are minimal—reminiscent of a children’s book—and the sentences are short, simple, and repetitive in structure. At the office the speaker talks with his coworkers: “We plan what to buy and sell/ or where to go next summer on our vacation.” This is a daydream of material success; it is also a dream of conformity, in which the speaker finds his identity in the group.

The beginning of the second stanza immediately marks a contrast with the first: “In my dream of the factory, others like me, but they see/ I am different.” We think of a factory as the quintessential site of uniformity, but in this dream the speaker is defined by his difference from the group. We might suppose that the poet is setting up an alternative in preference to the daydream of the organization man in stanza 1. Instead, as stanza 2 develops, it becomes clear that this is a dream of unbridled egotism. The speaker is besotted with his individuality: “sometimes they question; I hold/ the answer in my mind for a while—no one can tell/ what I am thinking.” Again there is a childlike or adolescent quality to this. In the concluding lines, the speaker’s egotism swells to comically monstrous proportions: “I watch the sun find/ the next row of workers, and the next, and then the sun/ waits while I finish. What I do is all my own.”

The first two dreams have generic settings. The third dream is different:

In my dream of Mongolia, I love the grass
and the slight roll of the land. All my life
sings to that little tune of the wind. My shirt
blue, my cap one of those tapestries woven
from musk-ox fur, I herd animals all day,
and at night a balalaika flutters the tent.

Why is this not simply a dream of the country? Why the specificity of Mongolia? While pondering that, the reader notices that in this stanza there is more specificity to the imagery as well; the rhythm of the sentences is more lyrical, and the language more figurative. There is another difference, too. While the first two stanzas are clearly ironic, the third stanza offers no obvious purchase for irony. True, the picture it paints is naïve, but its naïveté is that of folk art. There is a harmonious quality to this dream that the others lack: The speaker neither blends into the “We” of the first stanza nor proudly sets himself apart, as in the second stanza.

Now back to the beginning. As a title, “Daydreams” virtually asks for a skeptical response. “Is that all you have to offer? How trivial!” (In the same way, one could dismiss at first glance most of the poems in the volume.) It is odd, though, that each of these three daydreams is about work. We are familiar with the image of the officeworker daydreaming at his desk—but what kind of person would daydream about working in an office? A poet, perhaps, whose job is daydreaming.

One way to read “Daydreams,” then, is as a whimsical yet serious account of the poet at work. The poet’s gentle irony is directed at himself, for the dreams of the first two stanzas are his. In the third stanza, he dreams not of a generic place—city or factory or country—nor of a place that one could visit—the real Mongolia—but rather of an exotic realm of the imagination, as far distant from contemporary urban American reality as a place could be.

Unlike many poems about poetry, “Daydreams” invites readers to recognize their kinship with the poet. “You are daydreamers,” the poet says in effect, “and I am too.” What saves the poem from sentimentality—“Yes, everyone is a poet!”—is Stafford’s awareness that many readers will resist his invitation, just as they will resist his conception of poetry.

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.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial