About William Stafford
Born in 1914, Stafford was drafted in 1940, and severed as a conscientious objector throughout the war (forestry, soil conservation in Arkansas and California); in 1948, Stafford published his master's thesis, a book about conscientious objectors, Down in My Heart (whose title collides meaningfully with that of his first book, West of Your City), and it was not until he was forty-six that that first book of poems was ready.
From Alone With America (1974).
2. Stafford is a poet of ordinary life. His collected poems are the journal of a man recording daily concerns. That is why his daily method of writing is relevant to his life's work. You could say that his poetry is truly quotidian: he writes it every day; it comes out of every day. And the poet of the quotidian did not find it necessary to become maudit, to follow Hart Crane to the waterfront or Baudelaire to the whorehouse or even Lowell to McLean's. He got up at six in the morning in a suburb of Portland and drained the sump.
3. If we attend to chronology, William Stafford is a member of the tragic generation of American poets. Stafford was born in 1914, the same year as Weldon Kees and Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, three suicides; Delmore Schwartz was born in 1913, and Robert Lowell in 1917. How wonderfully the survivor contrasts. What makes him so different? Like Lowell, Stafford was a C. O. [conscientious objector] during the Second War. Like Berryman and Kees he came from the Midwest. But Stafford is a low-church Christian far from the rhetorical Catholicism that Lowell and Berryman entertained. I suspect that his survival is related not merely to his Christianity but to his membership in a small, embattled, pacifist sect.
4. The poetic surface is often ordinary (not always: Stafford salutes a lost Cree inside a knife ... ) with famous dead deer in roads, with remembered loves, with fancies about wind and weather. This ordinariness doth tease us out of thought; while we are thoughtless, the second language of poetry speaks to us. Stafford has referred to an unspoken tongue that lives underneath the words of poetry. This second language is beyond the poet's control, but we can define a poet as someone who speaks it. English teachers afflicted with students who lack control over their own language - ignorant, illiterate, wordless - often assume that the best language is the most controlled and the most conscious. Not so, or not always so: poets are literate, poets control, poets command syntax and lexicon - but the best poets also write without knowing everything that they are up to, trusting in the second language's continual present hum of implication.
From "Eight Notions," Small Farm (1979).
When William Stafford talks or writes about his poems - as he has done in many interviews and in the prose pieces collected in Writing the Australian Crawl (1978) - he almost never views them as finished, analyzable objects of art, preferring instead to concentrate on the process of composition that brought them about. To use a type of analogy Stafford himself often uses, we might view him as an eternal analysand in the psychoanalytic process, one who resolutely refuses to act the role of analyst to any meaningful degree. This cast of mind may seem typical, but in fact the degree to which Stafford insists on it does set him apart from his fellow writers. In the creative process as followed by most poets, there seems to come a time when the writer emphatically wants to understand, dominate, and shape his materials intellectually. The overall process may begin organically, with the poet simply accepting the signals that arrive, but by the time it is finished, the poet knows what is going on and asserts his control in order to be sure things turn out right. Not so with Stafford, one of whose "cherished" beliefs is "that a writer is not trying for a product, but accepting sequential signals toward an always-arriving present."
From The World's Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Copyright © 1985 by the University of Georgia Press.
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. Writing of "The Farm on the Great Plains" Stafford said: "plains, farm, home, winter, . . . these command my allegiance in a way that is beyond my power to analyze at the moment." Yes, and his world commands my allegiance. I am caught up in his sense of space and time and of the American Dream, his sense of loss, his sense of joy in the here and now, his feeling for the land and the seasons, his belief (manifested in the poems themselves) that the smallest events in our lives and the smallest feelings that travel our spines are miracles - a puff of air, an extension of muscle and memory as we reach out to turn on a light. In his best work I come away with a sense of myth, and of prophecy, that I had better not try to define here.
From Modern Poetry Studies (1970).
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