William Stafford walked into my life when I was in the eighth grade, as a visiting writer at my school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has been coming through my door, occasionally and always unexpectedly, ever since. The simple fact that he’s been dead now sixteen years doesn’t deter either of us from allowing this claim. He was, after all, a poet accomplished at elegy and the ways in which that form masquerades as a release when it actually, more fervently, beseeches.
I didn’t know enough back then to appreciate him ahead of time, to be excited for his visit. He walked into the classroom and looked exactly as his biographical photos from his later years depict him—an unassuming older man, gray hair groomed back so that it showed the grooves of the comb. Those marvelously bushy eyebrows and, of course, that smile that seemed to say, immediately, welcome. He was a stranger for a few minutes, and then, after the introductions, he was an Important Poet—he, who had won the National Book Award and been the twentieth Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress, and the Poet Laureate of Oregon, among a host of other awards and impressive credentials. When he started reading a small sheaf of his work, everything changed again. He became, then, a writer who spoke to us in the confidence of friends, as if that were the most normal thing in the world for a world-famous poet in his late sixties to do with a group of restless, midwestern thirteen-year olds. Those transformations of person and communion, carried through his poems, in that most unlikely of venues, were nothing less than astounding.
Robert Bly cautioned, “William Stafford looks mild, but he is quite fierce.” It’s true. Something very complicated and, yes, fierce, happened as I listened to Stafford’s quiet voice. One poem, in particular, I still distinctly remember from his reading that day:
“After the last class in the empty room
chairs relax, each in a shadow,
and they all stand still and hear anti lectures
all night long.”
That room he was describing—it connected somehow to the classroom I was sitting in, and the chair I was in felt more real and important, and I felt my body heavier within it, because someone had written about this place, this space of school, a part of my daily life. I didn’t know you could write about the places you inhabited and saw every day. I thought if you were a real writer you had to invent everything. I saw the students around me, felt their breath still and watched them watching him. And then, drawn into the center of the poem, I recognized suddenly what he was saying, what the room would look like when we’d all left, and heard those questions that he told us would come in our absence, questions that well could have come right out of my schoolgirl head: “Where does the wind/end? What can the rain give?”
The deepening, certain sense of place that allows the reader to know it and, in turn, to feel known as the poem moves forward turns out to be essential to much of Stafford’s work. His poems’ territory is less often interiors such as the classroom, and more often the outside world—the scrubbed grass patches of the Kansas plains or a shaded spot in Oregon where wilderness and lake meet and tangle. Like the photographer Robert Frank, he drives us on the road in the big old American car to see this country for its promise and trouble; he takes us off the lonelier exits to get out and stretch our legs and to peek us in the windows of the real people who live there at the edges. Often, the route loops back on itself. He’s known to return us repeatedly to his earliest scenery, to meet him in poems and nonfiction as a small boy in Hutchinson, Kansas, giving the lesson that the landscape you are born into never leaves you, no matter how far, no matter where else you go.
This tying together of physical and ideological geography is more commonly identified with fiction writers, and celebrated in the likes of Wallace Stegner‘s west, Eudora Welty‘s hackberry-treed South. It’s no surprise that “story” often works its way into his titles for individual poems and whole books alike. But Stafford recognized the peril of a poet too closely identified with place, how easy it was to dismiss his work as minor and provincial. “Being tagged a regional artist doesn’t hurt much,” he joked. And then, more seriously, he added, “ “Any artist has to be regional….Anyone actually doing art needs to maintain this knack for responding to the immediate, the region; for that’s where art is.”
For a year of his life, that region for his art and work became the place that I now call home, Washington, DC. He seemed bemused by the District, and alternately suspicious of and frustrated by the city’s workings. When he was offered the position of Poetry Consultant, he wasn’t at all sure about picking up his life from his house in Oregon and moving all the way across the country, and so he put it to family vote. With three votes for, and his one vote against, he lost, and only then did he accept the honor.
In fact, the last time the nation’s capital and its government offices had come calling, he’d turned its offer down. His draft notice for wartime service came through in 1942. The local draft board was headed, ironically, by a military man who also happened to be his former Sunday School teacher, and Stafford stepped forward to remind him how he had taught the class that it was wrong to kill. Stafford, then, was granted conscientious objector status and so became known as a “conchie”—between 1942 and 1946, as part of the Civilian Public Service program, he traversed mountain roads, built fire lines, broke dirt to temper the effects of soil erosion, and constructed bridges across the U.S. No easy job, was this, and I like to think of Stafford’s life work encompassing not just the books he left behind that so loved the land, but also the hidden markers on the infrastructure at outposts throughout this country, of the dues he paid and the work he honored, for that land.
Once he’d made it to Washington in 1970, the Poetry Office gave him fair cause for consternation: a congressman called him up and assigned him to write a bibliography on Percy Shelley for his daughter who was too lazy to do it herself. Suddenly he was at beck and call for completing other people’s homework. His position at the Library of Congress was one that he found full of, in his words, “continued strangeness.”
But his tenure as Poetry Consultant becomes important precisely because he was pressed here to think about just what is the poet’s job, and because the things he decided mattered about being a poet in the world would carry forward and be kept in practice for the rest of his years on this earth.
“”What does the Poetry Office really do?” he asked in a lecture at the Library in May of 1971. It was a question he was asked countless times during his time here, and a question he kept asking himself. There was a discomfort with not being able to put a name to the labors that, left unexplained, did not carry the imprimatur of honest work. Stafford was no stranger to hard, good work under many titles: in addition to the backbreaking work of the CO camps, over the course of his life he seemingly tried every job imaginable—from beet picker to worker in an oil refinery to church secretary. By the end of his life he’d established a career as a master teacher, putting in more than thirty years as a professor of literature and writing at Lewis and Clark College.
Writing itself was defensible labor. It was back in the work camps that he established his daily writing practice, his signature 4:00 am writing hours, because that time could be his and his alone, in those early hours before the Selective Service System “owned” him,” as it did the rest of the long day. That time he kept sacred for doing, as he wrote, “maintenance work or repair work on [his] integrity.” The work of conscience and the work of poetry, for William Stafford, became indivisible.
But the Washington work was something more slippery. He tried to explain the difficulty of addressing that question of just what the Poetry Office’s purpose was:
The Library administration has supplied us with an explicit and impressive list of functions, and I can usually remember enough of them to use in response, so as to sound useful and frank, and engaged, like other workers. Possessed of such a list, why do I almost always feel somehow guilty? Why does a recital of the functions leave me and the questioner looking baffled? There is some leftover, or residue, or essence not identified, apparently.
For a poet with such a reputation for clarity, this speech, a task required by the position, is remarkably muddled. But he seems to be working something out here, something he’ll be thinking out, and acting on, from this point on. Surprisingly, that “”leftover”—that which was not enumerated among the duties of the Consultant, but that Stafford felt surely was successful outcome—was something he came to believe was best left unnamed. The unforced, artistic, authentic community that formed, even transiently, at events, readings, and meetings proved valuable work for the “reverberation, or human response—company”created there. By nature, these successes were momentary and individual; they were not quantifiable by list item or official function. As close to the poet gets here to capturing it is to say that “”this activity comes about by willingly entering an area of possible encounter.”
The area of possible encounter is what brought him not just to Tulsa, Oklahoma, but to places as far-flung as towns in Bangladesh, Austria, Egypt, and Iran. His son, in his memoir of his life with his father, writes of one itinerary that took Stafford to 27 different towns in America within thirty days.
Much has been made of the quotidian nature of Stafford’s poems, in tribute and criticism alike. But it’s the way that poem, poet, and practice come together in dailyness, a greeting and a supplication, that seems most important to the legacy of Stafford’s work.
As a writer of conscience, he is a writer in constant, public struggle. There are facts of life, he tells us: that “tragedies happen; people get hurt/or die/and you suffer and get old” in one of his most famous poems. But that doesn’t stop the anxiety of the wait, the pain of loss, the deep sadness we experience in the world. While critics have noted the easy calm in his work, fellow writers such as Alberta Turner remind us that the work serves solid doses of despair, reproach, suspicion, humor, and “unassuagable anger” and, for poet Henry Taylor, the playing out of “”millions of intricate moves.”
Stafford—and his poetry—have been accused of sentimentality, nostalgia, simplicity, naiveté. And it’s true that some of the poems don’t hold up as well as others. It’s hard, for example, to extol the virtues of puppies “”wiggling to say/love is everywhere.” But mere pages later, when he writes of Mr. or Mrs. Nobody, the days they—and so, we—face in which the world is heavy mistake, I forgive him his trespasses all.
His sly humor often gets underplayed as well, and the aphoristic wit such as that in the humanities lecture, in which we’re told “”Aristotle was a little man with / eyes like a lizard” deserves re-attention. “”I let history happen—sorry,” he quips. Or what about the single line dedications that open up his book My Name is William Tell? “”Poetry is all right but I wouldn’t want to live there,” he says with a wink. And then, most knowingly, “”To my critics: Thanks anyway.”
Those critics might have us understand his poetry as “”harmless” precisely because he was so prolific, and because the work was full of the things of this world. On Stafford’s writing desk the day he died was a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of his favorite writers, and a man who claimed that the poet “”is the true and only doctor.” In his life, Stafford sought to do no harm; his poems seem to take Emerson’s advice as good work of the good doctor. But to seek to do no harm does not mean the poems don’t do their intricate work with scalpel and needle, getting down into muscle and bone, opening, letting, repairing. It does not mean, above all, that they do not hurt.
It’s impossible to sum up a writing life that resulted in over sixty published poetry books, in addition to memoirs, recorded lectures, and texts on the writer’s vocation. Even dying hasn’t made him less prolific; eight books of his work have been published since his death in 1993. The recently established William Stafford Archive at Lewis and Clark College contains more than a hundred thousand pages of letters, 15,000 photographs, and 20,000 of his daily writings written in his infamous “”early mornings” all just beginning to be explored. How could we not conceive him as sly ghost, coming into our rooms, to teach us still?
I could readily connect Stafford’s history in Kansas with a possible willingness to travel to what, back then, seemed to me like godforsaken nowhere. Gobbled up as it was with strip malls, under the gaudy cast of Oral Roberts University and its gold and turquoise Prayer Tower, Tulsa seemed the last place for poetry to come. But I understand and appreciate Stafford’s trip to that eighth grade class, now, as part of a larger mission and responsibility, and I am thinking about those fellow listeners in towns of Malaysia and Pakistan and all the other places he traveled in search of the possible encounter and who met this man of mildness and fierceness, who were brought into certain place and knew and were known, and who, like me, will not forget.
William Stafford, “Leftovers: A Care Package,” in Two Lectures, Library of Congress, 1973.
Tom Andrews, ed. On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things, University of Michigan Press, 1993.
Jeff Baker, “Oregon Poet William Stafford is Hugely Popular–15 Years After His Death,” The Oregonian. 6 July 1998.
Robert Bly, “”William Stafford and the Golden Thread,” in The Darkness Around Us is Deep: Selected Poems of William Stafford, Harper Perennial, 1993.
Chip Brown, “”Poetic Justice: Thanks to the Library of Congress, The Work of At Least Some Top Poets Leads to a Paying Job,” The Washington Post Magazine, Dec. 5, 1982.
Poetry Foundation. “”William E. Stafford (1914 – 1993),”” Poetry Foundation.
Kim Stafford, Early Morning: Remembering My Father: William Stafford, Graywolf Press, 2002.
Selected Books by Stafford
Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford 1937-1947, ed. Fred Marchand, Graywolf Press, 2008.
Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War, Milkweed: 2003.
The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1998.
Down in My Heart: Peace Witness in War Time, Oregon State University Press, 1998.
An Oregon Message, Harper and Row, 1987.
Stories That Could be True, Harper and Row, 1977.
Allegiances, Harper and Row, 1970.
Traveling Through the Dark, Harper and Row, 1962.
This essay originally appeared in Volume 10:4, Fall 2009.
Christy J. Zink is an assistant professor of writing in the University Writing Program at George Washington University. Her work has appeared in such publications as American Literary Review, The Washington Post, and in the anthology Electric Grace. She is a recipient of a Literature Grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and has twice been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She also teaches community writing workshops in Washington, DC.