William Stafford Stafford, William (Vol. 7) - Essay

Stafford, William (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stafford, William 1914–

Stafford, a critic has asserted, is a rara avis, "an adult American poet." He has also been called "a sort of Western Robert Frost, forever amazed by the spaces of America, inner and outer." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[William Stafford's] first book, West of Your City, was published very prettily in 1960 by one of those small private presses which can bring a book to print but have trouble causing it to be noticed or read. This book is already unavailable. The second collection, Traveling Through the Dark, contains too many new poems of lower energy than Stafford's remarkable best, and it seems a pity that this new volume … could not have been arranged to include the best poems from West of Your City instead. Yet the first long section has many rich poems in it—robust, mystical, sensuous, witty, wealthy with the rhythms of everyday speech. Stafford brings to his poetry a really good mind, a highly developed eye for landscape, a broad frame of reference, a maturity about joy and trouble, and a natural unforced talent that may one day make him the envy and despair of his contemporaries.

In the best poems of Traveling Through the Dark you find yourself plunged happily into the middle of a poem's experience before you know how you have got there. In the less good poems you tend to be aware of a bustle of preparation, but the lesser poems are simply a little less intense, less striking. Among the finest poems, as in the first book, are those dealing with the patterns behind landscape; but you will also find quizzical poems on the nature of thought and understanding, on the meaning of natural disasters, on the discrimination between the large and the small, on the exchange between one generation and the next, or on the place of poetry. No narrowness here. One poem, called "The Job," is the best I know about the profession of teaching. Another, "The Thought Machine," gives sheer delight in the reading and the rereading, as it relates, with humor and justice, man to machine…. If William Stafford can discipline himself to print only the very best of his poems, watch out. He is a poet with something to say, who can transcend his human limitations and perform the poet's highest task by clarifying the world around us. (p. 88)

Peter Davison, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1962 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), November, 1962.

William Stafford never takes life for granted. To the creatures that compose life's daily procession and the Spirit that sustains it, he pledges his allegiances, a term seldom used in the plural. With a patriotism of invisible, but none the less real, and joyous, flags, he celebrates the earth and those who live on it.

Each lyric by Stafford is an event, which takes its place calmly in one of four sections [of Allegiances], like the seasons. (p. 288)

Death is everywhere in Stafford, that "long dance over the field" for which it is impossible to find a partner. Never stripped of mystery, death enters the poetry quietly, heightening the value of living things and their setting, that earth to which primary loyalty is due. Since death is a part of the scheme of existence, Stafford will not make a stranger of it but rather grant it acceptance among the impressions gathered by his eye, "a camera that believes". This camera records for the memory landscapes corresponding to insights received while "traveling through the dark", that blessed if inscrutable darkness needed so that light itself can reign.

Stafford welcomes his role as "earth-dweller", the title of a piece that declares, "The world speaks everything to us." It does, but how few listen! Silence, the prerequisite of hearing, he holds in reverence: one feels its presence even when it is not named. (pp. 288-89)

Stafford is gentle, patient, in control of both experience as source and the poetic act itself. He impresses without dazzling. "At least at night, a streetlight/Is better than a star." His strength, with lyric surprises, sustains us—not the least function of art. (p. 289)

Sister Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F., "Symbolic Landscapes," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1971, pp. 288-90.

There is, certainly, a relation of consequence between the rejection of "rhetoric" and the refusal of cumulative structure. The poems in all Stafford's work come at us in the register of winter, "the great repeated lesson," and as he says of the creatures of earth, "everything cold can teach, they learn." Cold can teach everything except one thing—how to structure. There is no articulation, no development in this determinedly erasing voice; determined, I mean, to abide by the provisional and the negative…. So the poems accumulate but they do not grow; they drift like snowflakes into a great and beautiful body of canceling work …, for Stafford is, in all of his determinations, minor. A reader confronted by two poems of his of equal merit—and there are a great many poems of equal and enormous merit—but written at different times cannot immediately say which was written first, cannot settle their chronology on the basis of the poems themselves. That is the world of minor poetry, but it is, as Stafford says, "a good world to be lost in," and if it is predictable ("we follow by going ahead of what we know is coming") it is never assertive or greedy…. (pp. 217-18)

[In] order to achieve his remarkable effect [in Someday, Maybe], the effect of discursive purity untempered by social compromise, Stafford relies upon and requires the mediate, the entrapped, the contingent language: "we study how to deserve / what has already been given us …". All society, in Stafford, is in the past, remembered, elegized; in the present is solitude, "a calm face against the opening world"; and in the future, only death…. These are poems of chthonic release, their weather is storm, their season winter, their in time of day darkness…. (pp. 218-19)

For William Stafford, the important thing, the ineluctable thing, is that one poem be written in that level delivery of his, and then that another poem be written, that the poems keep coming, replacing each other, like leaves released from the tree at the start of winter—is the leaf that will come better than the life discarded? more nearly the right leaf? The point is all in the process, the seasonable realization, until, as Stafford says in his extraordinary diction of some three hundred words, the voice never raised above the sound of one man talking to one other man at nightfall outdoors, no one word given more energy or pitched higher than any other word, no one poem enhanced by the glamors of compositional stress beyond any other poem—until

                     … unbound by our past we sing
       wherever we go, ready or not,
       stillness above and below, the slowed
       evening carried in prayer toward the end.
                                     (pp. 219-20)

Richard Howard, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.

Stafford is one of the finest poets of the conversational style. His poems are limpid and controlled, with a sort of narrative plainness that recalls Robert Frost. Like Frost too, he writes out of an experience of America, in particular of the American Northwest, though rarely with the insistent localism which characterized other poets of the 1960s, who loaded their poems with folk history and picturesque place-names. For Stafford the American landscape is the embodiment of a way of seeing. It supplies a solitary vastness crossed by languages which reach from one blind place to another; not only human languages, confined to the long loops of telephone wire which appear so often in Stafford's poems, but natural languages spoken by snowflakes, by echoes, by tumbleweed. Stafford's "language of hearts" speaks across the distance which separates man from his own created objects, and from nature…. These connections come easily to Stafford. He perceives them with a child's immediacy, but a child who has grown older and learned to understand the irremediable quality of distance. When he is at his best, Stafford's plain style has some of the feeling of folk stories and myth: it does not need complexities of language in order to create its vision, because the vision belongs to the world the poet sees, and not to the poet himself.

These marvelous qualities are only sparsely present in Sometime Maybe. Instead, the simple language has become a mannerism. The transparent sense of myth or folktale has become a deliberate naïveté. (p. 605)

One need only recall Stafford's extraordinary myth poem in The Rescued Year, "The Animal That Drank Up Sound," to see how powerfully this mode has worked for him in the past. But in Sometime Maybe the ideas fall limply on the page. One has the sense of a formula being offered, instead of a perception still damp with its birth-water.

But Stafford is too good a poet to be defined by his failures, even in a book as disappointing as Sometime Maybe. Here and there one comes upon poems which are as quietly startling as any Stafford has written. In the end, one feels that Sometime Maybe represents not so much a flagging of Stafford's powers as an editorial mistake, made all too easily because the convention of simple talk lay at hand, ready to speak on when the poet himself had fallen silent. (p. 606)

Paul Zweig, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 4, 1974.

For Stafford, this is a land of compelling opposites, a nation which has indeed brutalized generations of Indians (toward whose habits, beliefs and customs he is drawn) but a nation which is blessed with a marvelously varied natural landscape, at once subtle, striking, awesome, and for him, impossible to overlook. And too, a nation whose people can be generous, kind, thoughtful…. From those people, moments of whose lives Stafford evokes in his poems, one obtains a particular vision of America—not Whitman's lyrical urging, really, but not a voice of despair, either, and certainly no inclination to disgust or self-righteous condemnation.

Stafford is wonderously attentive to the land, sky, water and foliage of our mid-West and far-West. He presents us with territory many of his readers will, perhaps, know not at all…. There are people, he knows, connected to the land he wants to bring before us, and in his own quiet, indirect, unauthoritative, yet telling manner he introduces them to us. In a few lines he can offer more than a shelf-full of sociological, anthropological and psychological studies (with their "worldviews," the "psycho-social" this or that of these or those)….

Who else brings us Elko, Nevada, or Sharon Springs, Kansas? More important, he has his very own way of bringing to bear nature on man, the willful and self-conscious one who threatens the planet with extinction. (p. 27)

The sense of continuity, the faith in the ways of nature and at least a certain kind of man (themselves) which Indians unselfconsciously have as a psychological possession and as elements in their cultural tradition are not often to be taken for granted by the rest of us, even those Mr. Stafford knows, likes, is moved to portray. Somehow we have lost touch with the world around us and ourselves, and the two developments surely go together, at least in Stafford's gentle but tough vision of America. "It is the time for all the heroes to go home," he begins the poem whose title, "Allegiances," he has given to his most recent volume of poems. Then he adds one of his elliptical asides ("if they have any") and goes on: "time for all of us common ones/to locate ourselves by the real things/we live by."… Stafford is just that, one of the "common ones," and he is indeed "sturdy for common things."… It is, he is telling us, for others to criticize, berate, condemn, "them," all those near and far away who are fellow citizens of this nation. He knows their sadness, the virtual hopelessness they must sense if not recognize, even as he knows how it has gone for Sitting Bull and his descendents. And knowing, he still wants to sing—because as anyone who lives in a small town, however isolated, out West knows, you never can tell who will appear on the horizon, slowly work his way near, and reveal himself to have receptive ears and responsive eyes. (pp. 27-8)

Robert Coles, "William Stafford's Long Walk," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1975 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Robert Coles), July/August, 1975, pp. 27-8.

Stafford writes in a style that is direct without being colloquial, serious without being solemn, and moving without being maudlin. In his poetry is found power, but this is not the power of a single, startling overwhelming image or turn of phrase, but is rather the power of emotion carefully reserved and controlled; his poetry succeeds not by excess but by understatement. As Stafford's National Book Award citation reads, "William Stafford's poems are clean, direct, and whole. They are both tough and gentle; their music knows the value of silence." Such subtle style is found throughout Stafford's work. Another current found in Stafford's first two widely accessible volumes, Traveling Through the Dark and The Rescued Year (his first work, West of Your City was soon unavailable after its single small press run), and undoubtedly the most striking thematic metaphor in those works, is the motif of the journey. Trips of varying length and importance occur throughout Stafford's canon. Viewed as a whole, molarly, these trips, in their union of past, present and future events, are concerned with the ultimate journey, life. Viewed separately, molecularly, these trips can be divided into three major archetypal areas: journeys of remembrance (concerned with past events), journeys of quest (concerned with future events), and journeys of experience (concerned with present events). (pp. 122-23)

[Much] of Stafford's poetry encompasses a moving forward, a searching, a questing. The narrator views this searching as a duty, a charge. As the last line of "Vocation" and Traveling Through the Dark reads, "Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be." Often this charge leads to some of the bleakest visions found in Stafford's canon, thus showing again that the pictures Stafford paints are not idyllic ones; his imaginary gardens have real toads. Though Stafford looks back over his shoulder at a past of "each day a treasured unimportance," he looks forward fretfully to a future of uncertainties. (p. 125)

I do not wish to imply that these poems are very pessimistic. In Stafford's world view the future is a challenge, one must always be alert and revising plans. The future cannot be clearly mapped out and is not necessarily attractive—but Stafford in no way views uncertainty as apocalyptic. (p. 126)

Though in the poetry of William Stafford there are journeys past, present, and future—journeys of remembrance, experience, and questing; though there are wanderings in the rain and travels through the dark; and though the ultimate answer is never found (and, though, as he might say, the syllabus must constantly be revised), nevertheless, his work never once slips into despair or self-pity. No Lear rages on a heath; no travelers commiserate in a room with huis clos. Instead, his poetry exhibits a measured fullness of spirit and is a testimony to the power of self-reconciliation and regeneration through the continual process of self-questioning and discovery. Stafford's journeyers are finally able to say, with "The Wanderer Awaiting Preferment," "I calm the private storm within myself." (p. 131)

Dennis Daley Lynch, "Journeys in Search of Oneself: The Metaphor of the Road in William Stafford's 'Traveling Through the Dark' and 'The Rescued Year'," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1976, by Jerome Mazzaro), Autumn, 1976, pp. 122-31.