William Stafford Stafford, William (Edgar) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William (Edgar) Stafford 1914–

American poet, essayist, and editor.

Stafford is one of America's most accomplished contemporary poets. His writing is marked by a mature vision and by the calm manner in which he probes beneath the surface of everyday life "to find," in his words, "what the world is trying to be." Stafford was born and raised in Kansas and has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 1948; the dramatic simplicity of the landscape of these regions often provides the material from which his images are formed. Critics occasionally note that his poetry has changed little since his first volume, West of Your City (1960). Samuel Hazo remarks: "Like a good tree of the northwest, Stafford has grown in place."

Stafford's second collection, Traveling Through the Dark (1962), received a National Book Award. The title of this collection suggests what Roberta Berke calls Stafford's "journey to the interior: both to the interior of [his] native America and to the primitive [interior of his own mind]."

Stories That Could Be True (1977) contains new poems and gathers together poems from Stafford's previous volumes including West of Your City, Traveling Through the Dark, The Rescued Year (1966), Allegiances (1970), and Someday, Maybe (1973). Central to all of these works is Stafford's preoccupation with the past, his exploration of the conflict between technological society and human spirituality, and his Whitmanesque quest for unity. Stafford's own childhood figures prominently, as do his political and social concerns.

Stafford's recent collection, A Glass Face in the Rain (1982), is written with the same attention to the natural cadences of language and directness of approach that have marked his writing throughout his career. Stafford's mode varies from more conventional verse dependent on rhyme to informal poems with lines which read almost like prose, but always the poems are unadorned and infused with a clarity composed of quietness and strength. Critics sometimes find fault with Stafford's understated manner, noting that his simple, calm approach, when unsuccessful, falls flat. When Stafford's poems succeed, however, most critics are impressed with the power and serenity of his subdued poetic voice.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)

Linda W. Wagner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When William Stafford's poems took the literati by surprise in the early sixties, they did so for a variety of reasons. In an op-pop culture, with relativism more than rampant, Stafford dared to suggest moral judgments. People were good—or bad—because of their actions, and his "Bess," Ella, and Sublette met that judgment head-on. So did his craft…. Stafford had written poems for a long time; his craft was no accident. The use of homey language and idiom, the running sentence rhythms and casual throw-away lines, the recurrence of Midwestern locations and characters were all an integral part of the plain-style. Unquestionably like Walt Whitman's, especially in some early poems, the voice has in recent writing changed only slightly.

Sentence rhythm is one of the most visible characteristics of Stafford's poetry…. The continuing rhythm, phrase piled on clause; commas used to connect elements rather than separating punctuation to isolate—the poet consciously keeps momentum going in a poem until he chooses to stop it, often abruptly, for impact. (pp. 140-41)

Rather than having one uniform line or sentence length, Stafford is at his best in many poems by using the prose tactic of contrasting longer sentences with short ones. The somewhat rambling sentences … are often followed with short, emphatic statements. The rhetorical method of alternating sentence length appears to good effect in poems like "The Last Day," "At the Grave of My Brother," "Remember," "On Quitting a Little College," "The Peters Family," and "Some Autumn Characters." (p. 142)

Other devices that the poet uses frequently in achieving the effect of speech rhythms are the inclusion of dialogue and of broken sentence patterns…. His use of dialogue is surprisingly sparse, considering its long tradition in modern American poetry (Pound, Williams, Gregory, Frost, Eliot, MacLeish); when he does use it, however, it is often as a conclusion…. Stafford's use of dialogue, or actual speech fragments, parallels his alternation of long and short sentences. He appears to use them as contrast, to vary texture, to add the telling image to a line of conventional and sometimes less colorful description. The use of dialogue also permits even more inclusion of idiomatic speech patterns.

Although a good part of the impact of the poetic plain-style comes from Stafford's sentence rhythms, another contributing device is his choice of imagery. No matter what he writes about, he incorporates images of common living—i.e., "The View from Here":

In Antarctica drooping their little shoulders
like bottles the...

(The entire section is 1101 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stafford's poems reveal thematically a singular and unified preoccupation. The voice of his work speaks from a sheltered vista of calm and steady deliberation. The speaker looks backward to a western childhood world that is joyous and at times edenic, even as he gazes with suspicion and some sense of peril upon the state of modern American society. The crux of each volume by Stafford involves the search for that earlier age identifiable by certain spiritual values associated with the wilderness, values which can sustain him and his family as well as the whole of the technological and urban society which surrounds him. The means to this search come through a poetry of images, images frequently and profoundly mythic. (p. 178)

The setting of Stafford's poetry is western, ranging from Kansas, the state of his birth and boyhood, to Oregon, where he has taught for more than two decades. As a result, Stafford's outdoor world is a landscape of nature writ large: there is the wind of poems like "Tornado" and "Before the Big Storm" and the sky of "Holding the Sky." His preferred world is "The Farm on the Great Plains," as one poem has it, or "At Cove on the Crooked River." In almost every case, the descriptive imagery accompanying these poems discloses a deeply human value symbolically inherent in the landscape. It is, in short, a setting ideally suitable to the poetry of the Emotive Imagination and one markedly distinct from the more midwestern settings of Bly and Wright. If a lyric by Robert Bly is likely to be set in a snowy Minnesota corn field, for example, one by Stafford will be located on the side of a mountain or along a riverbank. The setting is partially accountable for a distinction in the tone of the given lyric. There is less of the soft effusiveness one is likely to find, for example, in a poem by James Wright. As Stafford says in "The Preacher at the Corner," "Unavoidable / hills have made me stern, determined not to be wavery." Another quality that forestalls the "waveryness" of Stafford's poetry is his relative adherence to regular and formal metrical and stanzaic patterns.

The qualities which Stafford shares with the other poets of the Emotive Imagination, however, are basic. Although the poem itself more often speaks through the first person plural in a Stafford poem than the first person singular, the poet's activity is often solitary. Stafford's use of the collective "we" universalizes his own experiences. While the drama underlying the poem may originate in the external world, it can dart inward with sharp abruptness. The inward propulsion of the poem also follows upon the juxtaposition of images. (p. 179)

Stafford's affinities with and contribution to the poetry of the Emotive Imagination … [involve] both theme and technique. In its larger context, his poetry is essentially Janus-faced: it looks back with nostalgia upon an idealized childhood, but never at a removal from a far more foreboding perspective of modern society. His poetry seeks to chart the connectives between these two worlds. What, then, is the relation between such a thematic preoccupation and the Emotive Imagination? It is precisely in the way by which the poetic imagination seeks to link up the two perspectives. The childhood world is extolled through images of the wilderness; the validity of that world and the accessibility of its values are revealed through a poetry of distinctly archetypal images….

Perhaps William Stafford is equaled only by Theodore Roethke among American poets who cherish the memory of childhood. Stafford goes beyond even Roethke, however, in defining the father as the central occupant of that near-perfect world. If for Dylan Thomas the childhood eden of "Fern Hill" finds him "honoured among foxes and pheasants" and "prince of the apple towns," Stafford's eden is appreciably simpler: "Plain black hats rode the thoughts that made our code." The Kansas boyhood of Stafford, marking an epoch of American life between the two wars, is rural, austere, inhabited by companionable neighbors and dominated by family. Its value for Stafford, though, is more than sentimental. It ultimately represents a way of life that forcibly contradicts the urban world of the 1960s and '70s. Its moral precepts derive directly from an intimate familiarity with the land and the wilderness…. (p. 184)

The mythic quality of the childhood world is dominated by the figure of the father who appears in dozens of Stafford's poems…. The father who appears in the poems is heroic: he is provider and protector; his moral strength is steady and independent of worldly expectations; most important of all, he is the high priest of the wilderness. Like Sam Fathers to Isaac McCaslin or Natty Bumppo to the neophytes of the frontier, Stafford's father is initiator and instructor to the son, not only in relation to the wilderness itself, but in the moral values which inhere within it. (p. 187)

Another character-type who corresponds to the father in the poetry of Stafford is the American Indian. Like the father, the Indians and their chiefs are dead; and their wisdom also derives from intimacy with the wilderness. They too impart their wisdom, heroically purchased, to their survivors through the agency of the poem….

The qualities by which the Indian is most consistently defined are not ferocity and warfare, but reticence and concealment, an insight common to the Indian poems of both Wright and [Louis] Simpson. His life is enacted according to rituals and symbolic patterns which bring him into harmony with the wilderness. He is marked by his withdrawal, both imposed and preferred, from the predator-settlers. (p. 192)

["Returned to Say"] illustrates a tenet which underlies all of Stafford's Indian poems: most of the Indians have been violently removed; their pattern of life, adherent to the values of the wilderness, remains a richly attractive alternative to contemporary society. (pp. 193-94)

The childhood world, for all its mythic import, is past, and "the rescued year" is saved from oblivion only through the language of poetry. Family and friends of youth have departed; the Indian civilizations of the past...

(The entire section is 2548 words.)

Lawrence Kramer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A] radical faith in the power of language to implicate reality has been the religion of American poetry for at least a century…. [Recently] the American poet's trust in language has shown itself as a "letting go" of what seem to be the recognized constraints of writing: a release of potentialities that are latent in the language one sets down. This letting go produces a text that half seems to write itself, or that can be trusted to write itself in a way that dissolves or blurs the boundaries between language and its referents. The poet's role in this process is to originate it and give it contour: to let his language speak through him, as if he were a kind of modern Ion, inspired not by divine madness but by the...

(The entire section is 1258 words.)

Greg Orfalea

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[William Stafford] is a unique poet if there ever was one, though somewhat misunderstood, I feel, and, strangely neglected by the critics. (p. 272)

For some reason he has been accepted as a bucolic poet. This is utterly preposterous, though he digs deep into the land for analogues. He is an urbane naturalist. His touted simplicity is not simple…. He is one of the slipperiest poets around, but like seals, that's getting rare.

I like to think of him as a "family jiber" who draws things closer by testing and defining boundaries. Families need such jibers. And so does a society…. William Stafford has been doing it all with a particularly sensitive and intelligent...

(The entire section is 1365 words.)

Frederick Garber

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The long spaces which stretch ahead of us, compelling our half-willed entry into them; that curious Other, whose approach can be deadly, whose hiding-places and motivation are out in those long spaces and have to be sought for there—this is essential Stafford. If it takes some of its origin in Frost (much of our modern poetry of nature does, Emersonians to the contrary) there is also a great deal which was in Stafford from the beginning and was confirmed by Frost. Stafford saw the long spaces elementally in Kansas. What Stories That Could Be True makes clear is how the Midwest modes of living in space were transformed into the Northwest ones, how Stafford was plains and is mountains, how all these together...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)

G. E. Murray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Writing the Australian Crawl, William Stafford] gathers together articles, lectures, addresses and interviews on matters of poetic inspiration, composition, technique and purpose. Now this brand of book is not unusual. It is a relatively contemporary practise for writers, in effect, "to clean out their desks" by assembling odds and ends of their works, superimposing an order of sorts, and giving it a catchy title. The result is an instant book. To some extent, this is the pattern Stafford follows. However, what distinguishes Writing the Australian Crawl is the engaging, emerging profile of Stafford as creator and personality….

Stafford generally has been appreciated as a plain...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Stephen Corey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For Roethke, the notion of the minimal had many aspects: the short-lined, tightly metered couplets and quatrains …; the subject matter of the brilliant greenhouse poems in The Lost Son, where the poet's close attention to "the little sleepers" awakens his sense so violently that he can pass through the greenhouse and notice how "my knees made little winds underneath / Where the weeds slept"; and the minimal philosophy of fear, ennui, and emptiness in such late poems as "The Thing" and "In a Dark Time." (pp. 732-33)

For Stafford, the minimal becomes primarily a matter of subject, and as the title of Things That Happen Where There Aren't Any People announces, the poet looks for...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Stafford's new book, A Glass Face in the Rain, contains six introductory poems set in italic type, one standing at the beginning of each individual section and one placed at the very start of the book. The best actual introduction to the volume, however, may be found in the concluding stanza of the first "real" poem in the book, "Tuned in Late One Night":

Now I am fading, with this ambition:
to read with my brights full on,
to write on a clear glass typewriter,
to listen with sympathy,
to speak like a child.

The passage...

(The entire section is 745 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Next year—Gods and Muses, Graces and Fates willing—William Stafford will quietly turn 70…. And it's about time to ask: is there a more exemplary poet among us?…

William Stafford has produced a stream of steady lyrics. There is no stylish violence about them: they are calm, alert, ruminative poems, spoken sotto voce. They may address so-called clichés and abstractions, like "love" or "truth," but in a self-effacing, unegotistical fashion: their method is exploratory, not declamatory. Stafford knows his place in the order of things, knows his "Vocation," in the title of an early poem, whose last line summarizes his entire enterprise: "Your job is to find out what the world is trying to...

(The entire section is 548 words.)