Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719
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, maintaining pacifist principles required great courage. Few people could sympathize with conscientious objectors, and the experience for Stafford was isolating. (He describes this time in his first published work, 1947’s Down in My Heart, a fictionalized memoir that he submitted for his master’s thesis at the University of Kansas.) Stafford, though, enjoyed the work—firefighting, soil conservation, and other Forest Service tasks—and, if anything, this experience strengthened his belief in the pacifism and in the gentle, receptive, “listening” attitude that characterizes his best poetry. Moreover, the years in camp made Stafford more sharply attuned to the tensions between the demands of the external, social world and the distinctive inner life from which his poetry flowed.
In 1943, while still in the camps in California, Stafford met and married Dorothy Frantz, a schoolteacher and the daughter of a minister. After his release, Stafford taught high school briefly with his wife in San Francisco and then worked for Church World Service, a relief agency. In 1948, he took a position at the Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. During this time, Stafford wrote steadily and began to publish in important literary journals. From 1950 to 1952, he attended the University of Iowa, where he studied with some of the most significant writers of his generation, including Robert Penn Warren, Paul Engle, Randall Jarrell, and Karl Shapiro. After receiving his Ph.D., he returned to Portland and began a prolific and distinguished career as a poet, teacher, and lecturer.
Stafford’s first volume of poetry, West of Your City (1960), did not appear until the poet was forty-six. The book met with immediate critical success, and thereafter the volumes followed in rapid succession, including Traveling Through the Dark (1962, winner of the National Book Award), The Rescued Year (1966), Allegiances (1970), Someday, Maybe (1973), Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (1977), A Glass Face in the Rain:...
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New Poems (1982), An Oregon Message (1987), and Passwords (1991). Stafford also published two books of essays and interviews on the art of poetry as well as children’s books and correspondence with the poet Marvin Bell. In addition, Stafford published more than twenty small-press books and chapbooks.
Stafford has been highly honored. In addition to the National Book Award, he won the Award in Literature of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Shelley Memorial Award. He served as a consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress and on the Literature Commission of the National Council of Teachers of English. He also lectured widely for the U.S. Information Service in Egypt, India, Pakistan, Iran, Nepal, Bangladesh, Singapore, and Thailand.