Down in My Heart, 1947, 2d edition 1985
Friends to This Ground: A Statement for Readers, Teachers, and Writers of Literature, 1967
Leftovers, A Care Package: Two Lectures, 1973
Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation, 1978
You Must Revise Your Life, 1986
Writing the World, 1988
The Voices of Prose, 1966 (with Frederick Caudelaria)
The Achievement of Brother Antonius: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems with a Critical Introduction, 1967
Poems and Perspectives, 1971 (with Robert H. Ross)
Modern Poetry of Western America, 1975 (with Clinton F. Larson)
William Stafford was one of the most prolific and best-loved of American poets in an age when it is often said that hardly anyone reads poetry, that more people write it than read it, and that there are no “major” American poets. After receiving his B.A. at the University of Kansas in 1937, Stafford acted as a conscientious objector during World War II in Arkansas, Illinois, and California, then returned to Kansas to complete his master’s degree in 1946. Down in My Heart, the memoir of his experiences as a conscientious objector, includes a half dozen of his earliest published poems. He taught at Lewis and Clark College near Portland, Oregon, for two years before attending the University of Iowa, where he completed his Ph.D. in 1954. After brief teaching stints elsewhere, he returned to Lewis and Clark, where he taught from 1956 until his retirement in 1980. His specialty was Romantic poetry; although he taught short-term workshops in poetry writing elsewhere, he did not teach creative writing at Lewis and Clark.
In “Mountain Conscription,” a poem included in Down in My Heart, Stafford portrays himself standing “suddenly alone” in “small shoes upon the sand,” hearing “the end of things,” and “not knowing what to say.” The ambiguous “they” tell him that nostalgia is “a feeling men have” and that he “will know it, later,” all of his life. Although no admirer of Stafford’s poems would likely cite that poem as one of his best, it captures much of his vision and of the image he portrays of himself. Critics, scholars, and fellow poets described Stafford as quietistic, tentative, passive, Indian-like, Quaker-like, low-key, congenial, pastoral, nostalgic, regional, and paternal (but not “patriarchal”).
Stafford was interviewed frequently, and he wrote extensively about his practices as a poet. In Writing the Australian Crawl he defines poetry as “the kind of thing you have to see from the corner of your eye,” and in You Must Revise Your Life he writes, “A poem is a lucky piece of talk.” Throughout Stafford’s work one may detect a somewhat oblique angle on life.
Stafford’s second collection, Traveling Through the Dark, gained him broad recognition when it won the National Book Award for poetry in 1962, and the title poem has been widely anthologized. In this collection, Stafford speaks for the random people of the world, including himself, as opposed to the heroes or notorious villains. Stafford’s third book of poems, The Rescued Year, includes “Fifteen,” a poem frequently anthologized in secondary school texts, and “Passing Remark,” which opens with a terse couplet that some readers regard as indicative of both his own reticence and the understated nature of his poems: “In scenery I like flat country./ In life I don’t like much to happen.” Yet things do happen in Stafford’s poems, and in “The Animal That Drank Up Sound” he offers a narrative poem of nearly fifty lines after the fashion of Native American myth.
In Allegiances, Stafford ranges freely from Kansas to Oregon, and his family continues to figure prominently. As he says in the opening line of the title poem, “It is time for all the heroes to go home.” He aligns himself with “us common ones” who “locate ourselves by the real things/ we live by.” Mundane diction, avoidance of flashy imagery, and a flatly conversational tone are his stylistic trademarks. Someday, Maybe, a title suggestive of Stafford’s playful evasiveness, includes such powerful poems as “Report to Crazy Horse” and “Report from a Far Place.” Stories That Could Be True includes “Accountability” and “Whispered into the Ground,” which concludes, “Even far things are real.”
Because Stafford was so prolific, readers might find Robert Bly’s edition of one hundred selected poems, The Darkness Around Us Is Deep, especially valuable. These poems vary from such apparently artless short pieces as “First Grade,” from An Oregon Message, to “Stories to Live in the World With,” from Someday, Maybe. Stafford’s poems are renowned for their accessibility, but he compels his readers to look at the things, events, places, and people of this world from a peculiar slant.