Stories That Could Be True
A crass fact which needs to be mentioned is that this book is one of the best bargains available to readers of poetry. At a time when the price of books is increasing recklessly, Harper & Row offer this magnificent collection at a price far lower than they might have gotten away with in these inflationary times. Aside from the new collection which gives the book its title, there are gathered here all the poems from Stafford’s previous collections: West of Your City (1960), Traveling Through the Dark (1962), The Rescued Year (1966), Allegiances (1970), and Someday, Maybe (1973).
West of Your City was published in an elegant limited edition by a small press; except for a few poems which have been widely anthologized, and fourteen which were reprinted in The Rescued Year, the work in it has been unavailable for several years. It turns out to be a first book of great maturity, distinctiveness, and understated power; Stafford, it seems, is among those rare poets who do not publish a book before they have hit their stride. We are in danger now of taking Stafford’s particular stride for granted, but it must have been come by courageously. The decade of the 1950’s was a strange one for American poetry; it was the era of what George Garrett called “the phony war,” the much-discussed conflict between the so-called Beats and the so-called Academics. When Stafford won the National Book Award for Traveling Through the Dark, there were some who applauded him for having learned something from each of the two camps, to make a poetry which was both energetically American and technically civilized. The obvious fact is that he was developing his unique style before the “phony war” was thought of. It is a style reminiscent of that of Robert Frost, an earlier loner of gentle fierceness. In meters that are never too insistent, yet never out of control, the poems in West of Your City record the observations of a questing spirit—evoking the past, revealing in the present many small but significant signs of where we are, and heading westward, into the future. The diction is discursive, almost conversational, but everywhere in these poems shines Stafford’s amazing gift for arranging ordinary words into resonant truth and mystery: “Wherever we looked the land would hold us up.”
Though West of Your City was out of print before it received the attention it deserved, Traveling Through the Dark immediately established Stafford as a poet of rare gifts and unusual productivity. As the citation of the poetry judges for the National Book Award put it, “William Stafford’s poems are clean, direct and whole. They are both tough and gentle; their music knows the value of silence.” True enough; and one is then awestruck to realize that these splendid poems—seventy-six of them, enough for two collections—were published only two years after West of Your City. As James Dickey once said, it appears that poetry is not only the best way for Stafford to say what he wants to say; it is also the easiest. This may be an exaggeration, but it is true that even in the most casual of circumstances, Stafford’s utterances can have the distinctive and memorable flavor of his poetry, as when he closes a letter, “So long—I look toward seeing you everywhere.”
In Traveling Through the Dark, the major advance over the first book is in breadth of tone. In a style that is low-key but distinctive, it is sometimes hard to find ways of breaking into humor, or of keeping all subjects from sounding as if they had equal significance. When one analyzes this potential difficulty in Traveling Through the Dark, one begins to think that Stafford has a talent, never quite indulged, for self-parody. That is, he is attuned to the effects he can create, and so sensitive to various modes of surprise, that even within a restricted range of word choices, he can be haunting, wistful, or slyly humorous.
“Thinking for Berky” and “Adults Only” make a useful comparison in this respect. “Thinking for Berky” is a recollection of a girl who lived outside the world the speaker knew, but who deeply touched his world in spite of that:
The wildest of all, her father and mother cruel,farming out there beyond the old stone quarrywhere highschool lovers parked their lurching cars,Berky learned to love in that dark school.* * *Windiest nights, Berky, I have thought for you,and no matter how lucky I’ve been I’ve touched wood.There are things not solved in our town though tomorrow came:there are things time passing can never make come true.
In these, the second and fourth of the poem’s five stanzas, many of the qualities that make Stafford’s poetry what it is are at their best. The meter is, strictly speaking, unstable; but though some of the lines are strict iambic pentameter, and others stray from that toward fourteen syllables, the rhythmical rightness of each line is firmly there, not to...
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