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One of America’s most prolific poets, William Stafford is generally considered a regional poet and one of the foremost practitioners of plain style, a kind of writing that uses simple language and concrete imagery to evoke a powerful response. Though his poetry has not always received the highest praise—and in fact, has elicited extensive criticism—the overall body of Stafford’s work has classified him as a poet worthy of study and placement in the American literary canon.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Adventures in Learning
Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, a small town on the Arkansas River, a few years before the start of World War I. His parents maintained a liberal and nonconformist household, attending church regularly, for example, but never formally joining any of the congregations, so important to the social life of their town. Stafford’s father, who appears regularly as a persona representing justice and tolerance in his son’s poems, encouraged his son’s reading habits and demonstrated the values of personal responsibility and hard work. Forced to travel to Wichita, Liberal, Garden City, and El Dorado to find work in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, Earl Stafford subjected his family to the rigorous life of the working poor.
When recalling his youth, however, Stafford does not focus on the hardship his family endured—the fact, for instance, that he had to supplement the family income as a child by working in the fields and raising vegetables to sell. Instead, he recalls his childhood as a period of intellectual freedom and adventure, with the town’s library as a central element in his explorations. This attraction to learning remained with Stafford throughout his life: He went on to study at the University of Kansas, earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees there, and the University of Iowa, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in 1955.
A Conscientious Objector
Stafford was drafted during World War II and chose to join alternative civilian service as a conscientious objector, or a person who refuses to participate in the war for ethical or moral reasons. Though anti-war protesters are somewhat common in America today, objectors to the 1940s war against Germany and Japan were scarce. They were viewed as cowardly and un-American; in reality, however, it required a great deal of moral strength to voice objection to America’s participation in the war. This moral strength would become a notable quality of Stafford’s work two decades later.
The four years Stafford spent working in civilian public service camps—mostly in forestry and soil preservation—served as both inspiration and preparation for his writing career. During that period he formed the habit of rising very early in the morning to write, a habit which he would maintain throughout his life, for he found those still hours most conducive to receiving and following the lead of the impressions that evolve into poems. His first book, however, was not poetry, but a fictionalized account of the years he spent working in the camps, Down in My Heart (1947).
In 1944, the year before the war ended, Stafford married Dorothy Hope Frantz, a teacher and the daughter of a minister in the pacifist Church of the Brethren. The couple eventually had two sons and two daughters. After the war ended, Stafford began a teaching career with Lewis and Clark College, where he would remain for almost thirty years, until his retirement in 1978. His only absence from Lewis and Clark came when he attended the University of Iowa to pursue his doctorate degree.
“First Sustained Relation to Other Writers”
As Stafford related in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, the experience at the University of Iowa provided his ”first sustained relation to other writers.” He has also stated that ”those two years remain the principal reference point I have for the literary life as lived by others.” This is particularly significant in view of the fact that Stafford has never been influenced by anyone else’s concept of ”the literary life,” nor the critical and commercial expectations that often beset it.
Indeed, individualism would become a key tenet in Stafford’s work. The theme, along with many other of his favorites, became apparent in his first collection of poetry, West of Your City (1960). This volume included poems on the American Midwest and West of the poet’s birth, childhood, and mature life; history and tradition; home and family; the Native Americans who share the West; the natural elements and animal life from which he derives inspiration; memory and the perspective it provides on experience; and—always essential to his creative process— exploration, the undistracted awareness that leads into ”new territory” in which Stafford finds his poems.
Stafford’s strong adherence to a moral code also became one of the more remarkable aspects of his poetry. In the 1960s, while much of American literary culture was trumpeting individual freedom and universal acceptance, Stafford insisted on a qualification: individual freedom and universal acceptance, but only when they came with moral responsibility. His belief in strictly defined categories of good and evil made him something of an anomaly among his fellow writers, but for a man who had long been an outcast, this was nothing new.
Despite the tentative reception his works often received at first, Stafford soon came to be recognized as one of the foremost poets of his generation. His use of concrete imagery and plain language meshed well with his boldly colored view of the world and gained him a reputation as a ”plain-style” poet. Not all of his poetry was successful: Stafford published only a fraction of what he wrote, and some critics felt that even that fraction was too much. Stafford, however, was not bothered by their opinions. ”A writer must write bad poems,” he wrote. ”Finicky ways can dry up sources.”
In 1992, just months before his death of myocardial arrhythmia, Stafford responded to a call from the U.S. Forest Service to write a series of poems to appear on signs at scenic turnouts on the highway that twists through the 8,000-foot peaks rising from the Methow Valley in northern Washington state. Stafford’s willingness to participate in such a democratic poetic project and the scenario itself—juxtaposing nature and poetry and the modern highway—serve as the perfect symbol for all his work. Starting with Down in My Heart and continuing through more than 3,000 published poems and many prose pieces, this prolific writer grappled with his ambivalence about the blessings of modern technology and industry and the disappearing wilderness of the American West.
Works in Literary Context
Stafford’s poetry and essays have often been compared to the writings of American authors Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom stressed the wonder of nature and the power of the individual in their works. Whitman and Emerson are both identified with the romantic symbolism movement that arose in America in the mid-nineteenth century.
Romantic symbolism was a movement in America in the middle of the nineteenth century in which the details of the natural world and the actions of people were used to suggest abstract ideas. For example, the changing of leaves in the fall maybe referenced in a poem to symbolize change or death. Both Emerson and Whitman, considered two of the first and foremost wholly American poetic geniuses, used romantic symbolism extensively in their poetry and essays. Stafford followed in their footsteps by focusing on nature and simple human acts in his poetry as a means of addressing larger, more universal ideas.
Unlike Emerson, however, and to a great extent more than Whitman, Stafford eschewed an elegant, artificial style and instead, crafted his poems around plain language, concrete imagery, and simple structure. This style of writing, which has been called plain style, gains much of its impact from its simplicity and accessibility to a broad audience. It has also been considered distinctly American in that it reflects the country’s democratic nature and individualistic spirit.
Works in Critical Context
While critics through the years have not been unanimous in ranking Stafford as a major poet, they concur that he is one of the most esteemed. His work has been praised for its attention to craft, the ways in which his plain style illuminates complex subjects, and his focus on a purer kind of life in which, by the time his poems began to be published in the 1960s, few Americans seemed to believe anymore. Nevertheless, many critics have been reluctant to consider Stafford a master poet because of the unevenness and repetitiveness of his work. There is a question of quantity versus quality which seems, in the minds of many critics, to have damaged Stafford’s overall reputation. As Judith Kitchen has mentioned, ”Stafford’s refusal to edit his own work and to limit the amount he publishes has caused critics to take him less seriously than they should.”
Opinion has been divided on the moral stance Stafford takes in his poetry, an approach that was not fashionable in the 1960s, when his work began to be read widely. Overwhelmingly, however, he is applauded for his straightforward style, his allegiance to nature and simple values, his ability to make contact with his readers, and his worldview. As George S. Lensing and Ronald Moran state in Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination, the life Stafford depicts is ”a richly attractive alternative to contemporary society . . . a mechanical existence that divorces the individual from authentic human values.”
Traveling through the Dark
Stafford’s poetry collection Traveling through the Dark (1962), which became his best known collection, won high acclaim for its elegance, style, and breadth of perception. Writing in 1989, Henry Taylor stated, ”Traveling through the Dark immediately established Stanford as a poet of rare gifts and unusual productivity.” The judges for the National Book Award for Poetry, which Stafford won for the volume, stated, ”William Stafford’s poems are clean, direct, and whole. They are both tough and gentle; their music knows the value of silence.”
Some critics, however, fault the collection for including not only Stafford’s best work, but a number of lesser poems as well. Peter Davison wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1962, ”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.” Davison expresses what seems to be the general opinion of Stafford’s contemporary critics, however, when he goes on to write, ”If William Stafford can discipline himself to publish only the best of his poems, watch out. He is a poet with something to say.”
- Cuddon, J. A., ed. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Third Ed. New York: Penguin, 1992.
- Stitt, Peter. The World’s Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
- Taylor, Henry. ”’Thinking for Berky’: Millions of Intricate Moves.” On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things. Edited by Tom Andrews. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. 221-232.
- Bentley, Beth. ”An Interview with William Stafford.” Madrona 2, No. 5 (1972): 5-18.
- Bradley, Sam. ”Reciprocity vs. Suicide: An Interview with William Stafford.” Trace 46 (Summer 1962): 223-226.
- Davison, Peter. ”William Stafford.” The Atlantic Monthly (November 1962): 88.
- Roberts, J. Russell, Sr. ”Listening to the Wilderness with William Stafford.” Western American Literature 3 (Fall 1968): 217-226.
- ”William (Edgar) Stafford (1914-1993).” Contemporary Authors Online. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2004.
- ”William Stafford (1914-1993).” Poetry Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 71. Online ed. Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2006.
- ”The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It: World War II Pacifists.” PBS Online. Accessed November 18, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/itvs/thegoodwar/ww2pacifists.html. Last updated in 2008.
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