William Edgar Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, on January 17, 1914, the eldest of three children of Earl Ingersoll and Ruby Mayer Stafford. Though his family was relatively poor and had to move from town to town for his father to find work, Stafford’s childhood seems to have been a happy one. His parents were enthusiastic readers and talkers, providing young William with a wealth of shared stories, poems, songs, gossip, and, especially in the case of his mother, a receptive listener to his own stories.
During their frequent moves during the Depression of the 1930’s, Stafford took on odd jobs to help support the family: delivering papers, raising vegetables and selling them door to door, harvesting sugar beets, and working as an electrician’s mate in an oil refinery. Even so, Stafford found time to roam the countryside, fishing and hunting with his father or camping alone. He developed a love of nature that was to sustain him in the years ahead.
After graduating from high school, he attended junior colleges briefly before enrolling at the University of Kansas, where he devoted himself more seriously to writing. While at the university, his lifelong political convictions also began to take shape. Stafford joined a protest against segregation of the student cafeteria, defying campus rules by sitting with black students. It was at this time that Stafford took a further step that was to change the course of his life forever: He declared himself a pacifist opposed to U.S. involvement in World War II.
When the United States entered the war, Stafford applied for conscientious objector status and served four years in alternative service camps in Arkansas, Illinois, and California. Because the war was popular,...
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In a preface to An Oregon Message, Stafford said of his poetry that he must allow himself to be “willingly fallible” to deserve a place in the realm where “miracles happen.” Whether his poems deal with home, memory, wilderness, fear of war, ordinary daily events, or the creative process itself, this quality of trust in the imagination and his ability to make, or let, miracles happen make Stafford so consistently engaging. Stafford’s poems may not be perfect, but they do offer many surprises and provide a vivid picture of one man’s quest to learn “how to live.”
On January 17, 1914, William Edgar Stafford was born to Earl Ingersoll Stafford and Ruby Mayher Stafford in Hutchinson, Kansas. With his younger brother and sister, Stafford grew up in a series of small Kansas towns—Wichita, Liberal, Garden City, and El Dorado—as his father moved the family from place to place in search of work. Earl and Ruby Stafford were nonconformists who held strong moral and spiritual beliefs. They instilled in their children a deep sense of individuality, justice, and tolerance. From long hours with his father in the midwestern countryside, Stafford developed his love of nature. He credits his mother and the gossipy stories she loved to tell with helping him perceive the intricacies of language. Although certainly not scholars, both parents loved books, and the whole family raided the local library each week, vying for their favorites.
As an adolescent during the Depression, Stafford was already helping to support his family: raising vegetables, working as an electrician’s helper, and delivering newspapers (at one time their only source of income). After high school, Stafford attended junior college and then enrolled in the University of Kansas, waiting on tables to pay his way. During his undergraduate years, Stafford began his habit of writing daily and began to translate his social and political beliefs into action. He participated in a demonstration against segregation in the university cafeteria and, when World War II broke out, registered as a conscientious objector.
Stafford spent the war incarcerated in conscientious objector camps in Arkansas, California, and Illinois, working on soil-conservation projects and...
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