The Poem

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. . . .”

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...

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Forms and Devices

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...

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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.