William Stafford Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

More than most poets, William Stafford saw himself in relation to his readers. How would you characterize this relationship?

Are there any circumstances in which Stafford’s receptiveness weakens his poetry?

How does Stafford complicate the dilemma of “Traveling Through the Dark”?

What convictions underlie Stafford’s rejection of art “growing from other art”?

Does destruction of the wilderness, in Stafford’s view, do more harm to the wilderness or to the destroyer?

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In addition to poetry, William Stafford published an autobiographical account of his conscientious objector service during World War II, Down in My Heart (1947), and edited poetry volumes and authored chapters in collections of critical analysis. Stafford’s Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation (1978) and You Must Revise Your Life (1986) contain essays on writing and the teaching of writing, as well as interviews with Stafford that were originally published in literary magazines.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

William Stafford is considered one of the most prolific of contemporary American poets. He received the Union League Civic and Arts Poetry Prize in 1959 from Poetry magazine. Although he was forty-six years old when his first collection of poems was published in 1960, he more than made up for this late start. Stafford’s second volume, Traveling Through the Dark, won the National Book Award in Poetry in 1963. In 1970-1971, Stafford served as consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress. Throughout his career, he received numerous awards and honors, such as the Shelley Memorial Award (1964), the Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest (1966), a Yaddo Foundation Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Danforth Foundation grant, the Melville Cane Award (1974), the American Academy and Institute of Arts Award in Literature (1981), and the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America (1993).

Widely recognized as a spontaneous, natural poet, Stafford greatly influenced the world of literature with his views on the teaching of writing. Equating the act of writing with coming to know the self, Stafford says that writing consists of finding the way as the process unfolds. He can indulge his impulses—knowing that they will bring recurrent patterns and meaning—because in back of his images is the coherence of the self. In his distinguished career as a professor, Stafford put such views into practice in his teaching and made them available to a wider audience through lectures, interviews, and his many published essays on the process of writing.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Andrews, Tom, ed. On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. Presents an assortment of over fifty mostly (but not wholly) complimentary essays on Stafford’s poetry and prose. Overall, they rank Stafford among the best American poets. Important historical analogies are proposed, favorably comparing his subject matter, voice, and vision to those of poets such as Whitman and Frost. There is enough hard criticism, especially regarding the occasional flatness of Stafford’s style, to allow the reader to share in the debate.

Holden, Jonathan. The Mark to Turn. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976. This volume, the first book-length study of Stafford’s work, is a useful overview of his major themes and technique. Holden focuses his close readings on poems from Stafford’s first published collection and the four collections with his major publisher that followed. The ninety-one-page study includes a biography.

Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999. This comprehensive volume is accessible for the student as well as the good nonacademic reader. In addition to a short biography and overview of Stafford’s work, it presents detailed analysis of seven of Stafford’s major collections and also considers his chapbooks and distinguished small-press editions. This 175-page work concludes with a detailed bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Nordstrom, Lars. “A William Stafford Bibliography.” Studia Neophilologica 59 (1987): 59-63. Although it is difficult to assemble an exhaustive bibliography because Stafford publishes frequently with small presses, this relatively complete one includes both primary and secondary sources. In addition to prose and poetry collections, it lists critical studies, symposia, interviews, doctoral dissertations, film, and reference materials.

Pinsker, Sanford. “William Stafford: ‘The Real Things We Live By.’” In Three Pacific Northwest Poets. Boston: Twayne, 1987. This chapter begins with a biographical sketch and then unfolds a book-by-book analysis of six of Stafford’s collections, offering close readings of representative poems to support more general conclusions. It includes a selected bibliography.

Stitt, Peter. “William Stafford’s Wilderness Quest.” In The World: Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. This excellent chapter develops Stafford as a “wisdom poet” and explores his process-rather-than-substance view of writing. It includes an interview with Stafford originally conducted at his home in 1976 and updated in 1981 at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.