Stafford, William (Vol. 4)
Stafford, William 1914–
Stafford is a prize-winning American poet and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[William Stafford] has been called America's most prolific poet, and I have no doubt that he is. He turns out so much verse not because he is glib and empty, but because he is a real poet, a born poet, and communicating in lines and images is not only the best way for him to get things said; it is the easiest. His natural mode of speech is a gentle, mystical, half-mocking and highly personal daydreaming about the landscape of the western United States. Everything in this world is available to Mr. Stafford's way of writing, and I for one am very glad it is. The things he chooses to write about—I almost said "talk"—seem in the beginning more or less arbitrary, but in the end never so. They are caught up so genuinely and intimately in his characteristic way of looking, feeling, and expressing that they emerge as fresh, glowing creations; they all do, and that is the surprising and lovely fact about them….
James Dickey, "William Stafford" (1961), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 139-40.
Stafford familiarizes his reality, makes it often subject to a "we," generalizing in that way the personal insight. The primary tones of his work are those of nostalgia, of a wry wit, often, which can make peace with the complexities of times and places. He says "that some kind of organization/is the right way to live." The danger is simply that things will become cozy ("The earth says have a place …"), and that each thing will be humanized to an impression of it merely. When the irony can outwit this tendency, then an active intelligence comes clear.
Robert Creeley, "'Think what got away …'," in Poetry (© 1963 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1963.
William Stafford … is a poet of Existential loneliness and Western space. He seems to write out of an autobiographical impulse, a need to describe and understand his personal experience of the mountains and forests of the Far West. He was born in Kansas, was educated in Iowa, and teaches in Oregon. His memories range widely over these territories and fill his books with images of tornadoes, prairie towns, deserts, mountain-climbing, etc. The technique is not dazzling—there are no verbal fireworks—but Stafford describes the objects of his world carefully and exactly: he has the power to see, the patience to wait for his insights, and the ability to construct strong structures of sound and meaning. He is a sort of Western Robert Frost, forever amazed by the spaces of America, inner and outer….
Sometimes he sees ironic reversals in the old struggle between man and nature and makes wry comment….
Out of such awareness comes not defeatism but a sharp appraisal of one's surroundings and a self-reliance in tune with nature—reminiscent of Emerson….
Stephen Stepanchev, "William Stafford," in his American Poetry Since 1945: A Critical Survey (copyright © 1965 by Stephen Stepanchev; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1965, pp. 201-02.
Plain in diction, plaintive in spirit, the poems in ["The Rescued Year"] are unspectacular but splendid. Kansas born, now a resident of Oregon, Stafford writes with a touching humanity of the spatial and temporal dimensions of his world, a large world centering in and symbolized by the American West. Jack London, Daniel Boone, and Ishi, the Last Wild Indian, are among the figures from the vanishing frontier who remind us in Stafford's poems that we must be regardful of "a world that offers human beings / a lavish, a deepening abode…." The frontier experience and his own childhood experiences enrich most of the poems in "The Rescued Year" but they do not in any sense define the limits of Stafford's vision. Like Dag Hammarskjöld, whose "Markings" are the inspiration for a sequence of seven moving poems in the collection, William Stafford is blessed with the gift of seeing and showing the universal in the local.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Winter, 1967), p. xvi.
William Stafford's … collection, The Rescued Year, is a deceptive book. On first glance it may appear somewhat colorless. It is simple and direct. It lacks clutter. Mr. Stafford has no need of frothy garnish, hysterical adjectives, or gimmicks. The poems communicate…. Value judgments are carefully weighed, and for the most part, calmly asserted. The poems reestablish the valid relationship between the speaker and his surroundings. As such, what could be ground into sentimentality in the hands of a lesser poet, assumes, in Mr. Stafford's hands, a force that goes beyond the poem….
For those interested in obscure puzzles, indirect communication, this is not their book. But for those who know simplicity and individual perception are the hardest and most elusive qualities a poet can attempt, this book will be read and re-read. Its language is exact and beautiful, inviting the reader to an involvement with words and silence. Here is poetry, written with a knowledge that goes beyond mere craftsmanship. I come away richer having read The Rescued Year.
Adrianne Marcus, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Spring, 1967, pp. 82-4.
William Stafford's grip is always loose, his touch light—almost feathery. Often, a very good poem slips through his fingers, slides away from him, in the closing lines; and this is the risk he takes by his unwillingness to tighten his hold to protect his interests. If the reader feels let down, disappointed, he also senses the poet is content to have lost the poem to save the quiet tenderness of the human voice weaving through it. If we read on, we learn that a few poems end with a magic and bewitching mysticism that is a perfect arrival, a blossoming and fulfillment of the poet's voice…. His best lines don't necessarily have the ring of inevitability: rather, they are on exactly the right wavelength, in the right tone of voice. They could as easily have been other lines, we feel, but we know they have been intimately listened—not worried!—into being….
The scale chosen may disturb the reader, since it automatically restricts itself to the limitations of a softly whispered one-man's viewing, but we are never led to doubt that Stafford has perfectly secured his most telling angle of vision. The style of seeing is usually the mover behind the poem's subject, not the reverse; and the poem becomes a way of creating a sensibility, not just discovering one already inherent in himself: a way of shaping a manner of feeling, wording inner responses and fitting them to the world….
In his characteristic mode, Stafford, making a powerful effort to resist the usual habits of his senses, slowly discovers the remarkable hidden beauty in ordinary low-keyed experience. The world is somehow to be learned by arduously and freshly observing average, middle experience—not extreme or fantastic experience. In this sense, he has been developing in a direction opposite to James Dickey, though both writers have been richening a personal and mystical vision.
Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (copyright © 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Winter, 1968, pp. 262-64.
Stafford is three very hard things to find in America: an adult, a poet, and an adult poet—and he does a very hard thing in Allegiances. He drops out. He can afford to; in his case it's being a good citizen. Traveling through the Dark and The Rescued Year are what we have come to think of as archetypal Stafford—wise, witty observations in plain, rich verse at once sustaining and confection, like a kuchen. While I wouldn't like to say that these two are a necessary preface to Allegiances, the [latter] book will strike many as more like edible lichen. When I leafed through it in a shop it seemed thin. In fact the poems are very dense, I think the most deliberate I ever read. Reading them slowly is almost frightening because you see how thoroughly they are meant. It isn't "sincerity," which is meaning what one says (and has nothing to do with art), but a trick he's developed of signaling that the act of saying is meant too.
Though Stafford's poems show up in prominent journals of opinion, Allegiances is beneath that level of dogfighting. Like Frost, he's more interested in griefs than grievances…. American buildings look temporary. Our architecture makes it look as if we don't really think we'll always be here; a white wood church is as transient as a tepee. What Stafford has done since "Lake Chelan" is dig in—sit quiet and feel out what relation is possible between us and the frightening land buried under all that asphalt, and how such a peculiar people as ourselves can live together with something like dignity. To do this you have to get away from the movers ("Deerslayer's Campfire Talk"):
Wherever I go they quote people
who talk too much, the ones who
do not care, just so they take the center
and call the plans….
In terms of content, Allegiances is the most dangerous American book since Walden. In terms of art, particularly as a work to hearten other artists who wonder whether fribble and propaganda exhaust the choices, it is of inestimable value. I should say that at least from a writer's point of view Stafford has given us a country to write in and write about, which is to say he is for us a kind of Hesiod. To review an achievement that important would be an impertinence, to reward it honorable.
Gerald Burns, "A Book to Build On," in Southwest Review, Summer, 1970, pp. 309-10.
Stafford is a poet who allows the world's language to move in on him, nuances and suggestions, intimations; a poet who wants to keep himself ready for "those nudges of experience," as he calls them. And: "it's like fishing—the person who keeps his line wet catches a fish." But as the world does move in on him, he gathers it together, for his poem's sake, line by line, whole poem by whole poem. Notice the internal rhymes, the natural break at one sound and the locking-in of that sound at line's end, road's end. The art of successful repetition. Sort of a refrain. Lovely, really, the echoes in the lines, and the pacing (for there are in the end only two sounds, silence and non-silence), the pauses and then the poem going on. Resonance. The poem coming off the page, toward our bodies….
And I would think that Stafford, more than nine out of ten American poets, would sound like a poet to someone who couldn't understand English. The full rhymes are infrequent, pyrotechnics are at a minimum, but the lines are held together by a sort of unstudied point-counterpoint. It is apparent that they were said in a lot of different ways before just the right combination of sounds and silences declared themselves inseparable forever.
Well, anyway, I am an admirer of William Stafford's poetry. First, for the craft that does not call attention to itself—Stafford admits that he almost flaunts nonsophistication in his work—but which is always there, being necessary and important just by being there; second, though this is never distinct from the craft, for the downright power of what he has to say.
William Heyen, "William Stafford's Allegiances," in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. I, No. 6, 1970, pp. 310-11.
[Allegiances contains] attractive pieces, full of gentle memories and quiet affection. The daily world of nonurban America lives in its simple fact. And yet, somehow, the manner too frequently moves into the oversimplifications of the sentimental:
Like a little stone, feel the shadow of the great earth;
let distance pierce you till you cling to trees.
That the world may be all the same,
close your eyes till everything is,
and the farthest sand can vote.
There are too many passages in the volume of this kind, too many poems that lack the tautness and the vigorous imagery of one of the better poems in the book, "Montana Eclogue":
We glimpse that last storm when the wolves
get the mountains back, when our homes will flicker
bright, then dull, then old; and the trees
will advance, knuckling their roots or lying in
windrows to match the years. We glimpse
a crack that begins to run down the wall,
and like a blanket over the window at night
that world is with us and those wolves are here.
This is a hard style to handle, with its colloquial informality and easy directness. Stafford can't afford to rest on his many laurels: he needs to keep his wit sharp and his mode terse.
Louis L. Martz, in The Yale Review (© 1971 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1971, p. 412.
[Stafford's is poetry] with a sustained force and directness of its own, a steadily maintained vision and a resonant music, and a legitimate claim on the reader's attention….
In Stafford's poems a simple vocabulary serves every purpose—"the language we all use every day and forgive each other for." Simple scenes—small-town streets, camping in woods, walking on a beach, closing down a high mountain ranch for the winter—are described, usually elliptically, often with wild juxtaposition of highly disparate images. These descriptions set the reader's mind reverberating, and the horizons of his spirit move back a little bit farther than ever before….
This poetry is pervaded by a love of the land and its life, a love for people as they move through experiences by which, under the poet's calm close scrutiny, they become exemplars of the way human beings live among other human beings.
Tom P. Miller, "'In Dear Detail, by Ideal Light': The Poetry of William Stafford," in Southwest Review, Autumn, 1971, pp. 341-45.
There was an earlier Stafford who was more engaged in discovering the size of the universe in which he wandered, sometimes scarily free. In this fifth book of poetry ["Someday, Maybe"], he has settled down in a known place.
"Someday, Maybe" expresses a humanized relation with the world of big spaces. Above him and on every side, Stafford looks into the enormous dimensions of desert, prairie, mountains or sky, and he gives a center of lived human experience to the wide expanse. For him the wonder is that amidst such vast contexts to our individuality, nothing ever drops away into insignificance or forgetting. He feels comfortable in the density of his relations, sure that, while he lives, his single life includes the earth and other people. Domestic and rusticated, he has the viewpoint of a private but not alienated citizen.
He responds to the world in quiet, penetrating short lines that sharply focus each poem on a single objective….
Stafford is in tune with his surrounding and his poems are like celebratory songs and prayers. But there is some danger that his mellowness in the world can become too anti-individual like the gross wisdom of folk-ideals….
Stafford's complacencies have turned him away from any experience that is potentially not his own. He does not reach to the edge of his composed life and touch the alien beyond it, but he opens his attention fully to the center of his charmed circle.
David Cavitch, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 9, 1973, p. 45.
One of the rich unexpected rewards of Stafford's maturity was the discovery that the many years of cultivating a bare plain idiom capable of the widest range of expressiveness in the lowest registers of the quiet tones of language—the low-pitched key of our human voice (consider the narrow range of the bass viol, but the unearthly over-tones sung by the instrument in the hands of a virtuoso performer!)—have produced a medium in which his own great calm would be a fit conductor for violent hidden movements of the earth, quaking in concert with deep temblors of the human spirit. Stafford celebrates the common bonds—the mediating site—between the earth and the single frail human vessel, astonished to find that any one of us in depths of "our stillness" can contain such magnitude of subterranean currents…. Stafford is inundated with the ecstasy of beautiful surging communion with the land, and he is so stubbornly committed to thinking himself an average simple person, his experience ordinary and shared by everyone, by anyone else—any reader, certainly—why, he petitions, isn't each one of us this very moment out running on the hills of night, of day, to become swept up into this love affair with our great benefactor, this marriage to our most faithful patron….
Stafford's voice is so quiet, so low-keyed, his taciturnity may be mistaken for frailness, timidity; his humble cries for self-diminishment, or self-depreciation. Yet he makes the highest possible claims for his humanity and his art….
William Stafford has continued, unwaveringly,… to develop and refine one of the most delicate supersensitive recording instruments in our poetry. He has been training himself to hear and feel his way back in touch with distant places, ages, epochs….
He would re-endow our poetry with a Frostian vernacular, a level directness of delivery of sufficient plainness to win back to the reading of verse a wide readership of unsophisticated caring humans. He is a civic manager legislating urban renewals of the heart. Stafford is our poetry's ambassador to the provinces.
Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (copyright © 1974 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1974, pp. 454-55, 458, 462.