The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555

William Stafford’s “The Rescued Year” is a meditative poem comprising eight verse paragraphs ranging in length from seven to eleven lines. The subject of this meditation is human memory and the continuous nature of human knowledge as passed from generation to generation, and because of the way the poet treats his subject the poem borders on the elegiac. The year that looms so large in the poet’s mind has been “rescued” from oblivion, or the loss of personal experience from communal memory; precisely because it has been retrieved from such loss, this year out of the poet’s past represents for him a kind of ideal: “Time should go the way it went/ that year. . . .”

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At the outset the poet asks the reader to imagine a large globe, and on this globe to “press back that area in the west where no one lived,/ the place only your mind explores.” He then recalls a family trip by train across Kansas, a trip that ended “against the western boundary/ where my father had a job.” This latter reference is to the town of Liberal, one of five Kansas towns in which Stafford spent his adolescence (and probably the most important to him in imaginative terms).

The second verse paragraph outlines some of the characteristics that made this time in the poet’s life seem idyllic: America was at peace, and his family’s existence “had/ each day a treasured unimportance.” The third and fourth verse paragraphs juxtapose three male figures: a local preacher, who mouths abstract catchwords such as “honor”; the poet’s father, whose curiosity and openness to experience lead him to knowledge and understanding; and the poet himself, who takes his father as a model in this regard.

In the fifth and sixth verse paragraphs four female figures are similarly brought together: the poet’s mother, pictured as making paper presents to bedeck a tumbleweed hung up for a Christmas tree; the poet’s sister, who is dating an oil-rich farmer from nearby Hugoton; a girl whom the poet himself is seeing; and the girl’s mother. Verse paragraph 7 recalls another family trip across Kansas that spring, with “my father soothing us with stories,” one of these about an old man “who spent his life knowing,/ unable to tell how he knew.”

The final verse paragraph reiterates the theme of personal experience and communal memory. In the first line the poet says that he “hold[s] that rescued year” in the ways his father showed him. He then concludes the poem with a complicated series of images in which things are either traced to their origins or viewed as results: the smoke from a coal fire turning back into chunks of coal and then into a seam of coal lying in the earth; the quiet after a whistle fades, a circumstance in which the poet feels “no need, no hurry”; and finally a train (presumably the one on which the Stafford family arrived in town) which the poet envisions returning to “our station,” where the sound of the cars being coupled “will ripple forward and hold the train.” This coupling of the train provides a metaphor of how memory works: individual images and experiences “ripple forward,” or present themselves, and “hold the train” in the continuity of remembered and shared human activity.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

Stafford’s verse is deceptively simple. It is based on the rhythms of speech, and its diction for the most part utilizes a plain vocabulary. Yet irony and ambiguity are never far beneath the surface of this apparently straightforward style. In “Near,” another poem from the collection in which “The Rescued Year” appears, the poet acknowledges the quirkiness of this style: “Walking along in this not quite prose way/ we both know it is not quite prose we speak.” This “not quite prose way” is not quite prose indeed; it is in fact an intricate balance of speech movement and poetic rhythm.

“The Rescued Year” would seem to be written entirely in free verse, for example, but a closer examination reveals that the poem’s lines are a mixture of free verse and metrics. The first line of the second verse paragraph, though apparently written in free verse, is actually trochaic (“Time should go the way it went”), and the following line is clearly iambic, its two interior pauses nothwithstanding: “that year: we weren’t at war; we had.” In fact, given the poem’s theme of rescuing experience from oblivion, it is possible to view the occasional use of metrics here as “rescuing” traditional modes of poetic expression from the oblivion of the almost universal contemporary use of free verse.

Stafford resorts to tradition in another way in the poem, and that is through his use of rhyme. Near or full, these rhymes are sometimes in end position, but frequently they are buried within lines. The fourth verse paragraph provides the richest example of rhyming in the poem (the rhymes appear in added italics here; the poet is speaking of his father):

Like him, I tried. I still try,send my sight like a million pickpocketsup rich people’s drives: it is timewhen I pass for every place I go to be alive.Around any corner my sight is a river,and I let it arrive: rich by those brookshis thought poured for hoursinto my hand. His creed: the greatest ownershipof all is to glance around and understand.

Perhaps the most noticeable—but hardest to define—feature of the poet’s style is his frequent obliqueness of phrasing, a main component of his ambiguity. This obliqueness is well illustrated by a line and a half from the passage quoted immediately above: “it is time/ when I pass for every place I go to be alive.” The curious syntax (something like “Every place I go comes alive when I pass it” might be expected) adds something to the expression of the idea, lifting it from the prosaic, the ordinary. By adding the prepositional phrase “for every place,” the poet makes the scene he passes seem to come alive, to participate in his act of seeing, even to greet him. This sort of intimate interaction between the observer and the observed is a characteristic of Stafford’s work as a whole, and through its agency that part of the world one ordinarily thinks of as inert becomes active, newly vital, and more whole.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 92

Andrews, Tom, ed. On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Holden, Jonathan. The Mark to Turn. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.

Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999.

Pinsker, Sanford. “William Stafford: ’The Real Things We Live By.’” In Three Pacific Northwest Poets. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Stafford, Kim. Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2002.

Stitt, Peter. “William Stafford’s Wilderness Quest.” In The World: Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

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