William Stafford was one of the most prolific and best-loved of American poets in an age when it is often said that hardly anyone reads poetry, that more people write it than read it, and that there are no “major” American poets. After receiving his B.A. at the University of Kansas in 1937, Stafford acted as a conscientious objector during World War II in Arkansas, Illinois, and California, then returned to Kansas to complete his master’s degree in 1946. Down in My Heart, the memoir of his experiences as a conscientious objector, includes a half dozen of his earliest published poems. He taught at Lewis and Clark College near Portland, Oregon, for two years before attending the University of Iowa, where he completed his Ph.D. in 1954. After brief teaching stints elsewhere, he returned to Lewis and Clark, where he taught from 1956 until his retirement in 1980. His specialty was Romantic poetry; although he taught short-term workshops in poetry writing elsewhere, he did not teach creative writing at Lewis and Clark.
In “Mountain Conscription,” a poem included in Down in My Heart, Stafford portrays himself standing “suddenly alone” in “small shoes upon the sand,” hearing “the end of things,” and “not knowing what to say.” The ambiguous “they” tell him that nostalgia is “a feeling men have” and that he “will know it, later,” all of his life. Although no admirer of Stafford’s poems would likely cite that poem as one of his best, it captures much of his vision and of the image he portrays of himself. Critics, scholars, and fellow poets described Stafford as quietistic, tentative, passive, Indian-like, Quaker-like,...
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