Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

5. William Stafford, 1914–1993

The male bird’s workaday plumage—the cardinal’s, the pheasant’s—makes a poet like William Stafford a little more comprehensible. He said of himself, “My poems are essentially courteous, but not tame” (Roberts 1987:454). Like Robert Frost, who wanted to be understood, but understood wrongly, Stafford wrapped secrets in honesty, in an ostentatious camouflage, to use the poet Joanie Mackowski’s phrase. His mix of plainness and show allowed him frequent, and sometimes remarkable reference to naturalness. Stafford displayed occasional bursts of poetic and personal cockiness, but more often wrote with beauty stripped of inessentials. His poetic lines were spare but not without deliberate and surprising color.

Stafford wrote a lot. He published sixty-seven books, making him vulnerable to some criticism for redundancy. But the matter-of-fact music one hears in an early Stafford poem, such as “On Quitting a Little College,” persisted throughout his work. That poem’s first lines go: “By footworn boards, by steps / that sagged years after the pride of workmen, / by things that had to do so long they now seemed right, / by ways of acting so old they grooved the people / (and all this among fields that never quit / under a patient sky), / I taught. And then I quit” (Stafford 1977:73).

When he gave public readings, Stafford stored his evening’s poems in one pocket and, once read, sent each folded poem like a jackknife into his other pocket. Indeed, Stafford’s opened poems showed edges and hidden blades, though, as his own pocket guide to poetry, Stafford preferred a compass. In a 1988 interview from his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, Stafford told Jeff Gundy (1988), “I can remember taking a compass to class, when I was teaching. And I’d put it on the desk and get the kids to look at it, and sort of spin it around, and it would go north. And I would say, ‘There’s something in this room that we’re not aware of, that the compass knows. We’re surrounded by these things. Why should we assume that our senses are bringing us what’s happening?’”

William Stafford grew up in Kansas. His Depression-era boyhood sounds, when he describes it, spare and dusty. His father worked in various oil fields, for American Express, for Bell Telephone. The family moved often. Stafford describes his parents as readers, his father as level, his mother as worried. Stafford graduated from the University of Kansas in 1937, spent time in conscientious objector camps during World War II—see his 1947 book of essays, Down In My Heart—married Dorothy Hope Frantz in 1944, finished his master’s degree at Kansas, and his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa in 1954. He and Dorothy had four children, two sons and two daughters. Stafford began working at Lewis and Clark College in Portland in 1948, and, though he soon left to do his doctorate, he returned and  remained attached to the college until his retirement in 1980. Dorothy Stafford also was a teacher. The Staffords’ son Kim continued in his father’s work at Lewis and Clark College. In 2002, Kim Stafford published a memoir called Early Morning: Remembering My Father.

William Stafford was generous and loved. He was Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress in 1971-72, and though his first book of poems, West of Your City, wasn’t published until 1960, when Stafford was 46, he won the National Book Award three years later for Traveling Through the Dark (1962), whose title poem is probably Stafford’s best known. After his retirement, Stafford took his poetry and his perspectives, through sermons, interviews, workshops, and readings, across the Northwest and the country. He traveled to nearby engagements in his Volvo, offered, out of his car trunk, various editions of his books for sale at post-reading signings, took pictures of his many hosts, and followed his visits with letters he generally ended with a signature, “Adios.” So, around the Pacific Northwest, many persons remember him fondly as one who visited their grade schools, spoke from their pulpits, opened the Oregon legislative session with a poem, critiqued student poems at workshops, gave readings at their bookstore or college. The University of Michigan published three books of his essays in its thorough “Poets on Poetry” series. Stafford didn’t hide himself. He admired a man he knew in his Civilian Public Service days who said, “I feel that if struck I should give off a clear note where I am” (Gundy 1988).  Stafford wrote early in the morning, before his family awoke, in a shed behind his house, or inside his home on the couch, where he died in August 1993.

Stafford books and electronic sites abound. The Academy of American Poets and Graywolf Press have excellent on-line discussions about him. What this site’s commentary offers at last, then, is a particular matter for discussion. One can ask if Stafford’s many poems about particular places, places throughout the Northwest or from his native Midwest, are evidence of a region’s influence on the artist. Stafford’s popularity has made him a favorite among readers in search of a Northwest literature. Yet Stafford resisted the regional identifier.  He said to this writer once, in a 1982 conversation, that being called a Northwest author sounded like being labeled a Lake Oswego writer or the best writer on his cul-de-sac. He told another interviewer, “The idea that the style is rooted to the landscape just sounds sort of quaint to me” (O’Connell 1998:260).  But the region’s readers are infected by Stafford’s poems with a regional fever that he undoubtedly spread. Numerous poems by Stafford, as well as by a host of other Northwestern writers, continue to change basic, human perceptions of local geography.  Stafford’s poem “Lake Chelan” is often offered by eco-literary regionalists as evidence for the co-incidence of art and place. “They call it regional, this relevance— / the deepest place we have: in this pool forms / the model of our land, a lonely one, / responsive to the wind. Everything we own / has brought us here: from here we speak” (Stafford 1977:84).

A reader writes the poem; that is, when one reads, one supplies the poem with scenes and inflections and intents. The sense in the syntax happens in the reader’s brain, in the same way (only more so in poetry) one can read from the New York Times and come away with different conclusions from one’s neighbor. The poem says, “from here we speak.” The assertive pronoun, “we,” brings the reader, the poet, and the citizens of Lake Chelan’s deep valley together in collective voice. Or does it? Is Stafford just imagining himself, as his compadre Richard Hugo did in his triggering towns, a brief citizen of a small place whose residents might speak as Stafford imagined? Poetic lines become manifestos. Theodore Roethke’s opening to “The Rose” is also a frequently spoken Northwestern motto. “There are those to whom place is unimportant, / But this place, where sea and fresh water meet, / Is important—” (Roethke 1964:29).  One can ask, then, if the writer who lives in words should share in the bonds those words make between a reader and the reader’s place. The writer may resist, knowing how far the writing mind and body need to wander. But faced by the inarticulate landscape, many readers claim the writer’s work for a local purpose, and rely on men like William Stafford to help call the place home.

See: William Stafford, “Lake Chelan” and “Traveling through the Dark” in The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems by William Stafford. 1962; St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1998.

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