by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Some poetry is bold and LOUD.
Some poetry is full of SymbØli℠.
Some poetry is full of RAGE, or Sorrow or Pain.
William Stafford (1914–1993) wrote poems in a soft-spoken voice, poems that seem direct and simple, but seep into you and make your mind turn them over and over, finding something new with each turning.
A life-long pacifist, he called himself one of “the quiet of the land.”
He wrote every day, but didn’t begin to publish his poetry until he was in his forties. In 1962, when he was 48 years old, his second book of poetry, Traveling Through the Dark, won the National Book Award for Poetry.
Read the title poem from his book, and you’ll see why a little-known poet would be honored with such a prestigious award:
Traveling through the Dark
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
William Stafford was born in Kansas, the eldest of three children. His father took him hunting and taught him trapping. By the time William was in his mid-teens, the Great Depression was forcing his family to move from town to town as his father searched for work. William helped out by delivering papers, working in sugar beet fields, raising vegetables, and as an electrician’s mate.
By 1941, Stafford was working toward a master’s degree in English, but he was drafted before he could get his degree. As a registered pacifist, he worked on projects assigned to conscientious objectors in Arkansas, California, and Illinois. He spent 1942 to 1946 in work camps where he was paid $2.50 per month for work fighting fires, soil conservation, and building and maintaining roads and trails. In 1944, while in California, Stafford met and married Dorothy Frantz, a minister’s daughter.
Once in the 40’s
We were alone one night on a long
road in Montana. This was in winter, a big
night, far to the stars. We had hitched,
my wife and I, and left our ride at
a crossing to go on. Tired and cold—but
brave—we trudged along. This, we said,
was our life, watched over, allowed to go
where we wanted. We said we’d come back some time
when we got rich. We’d leave the others and find
a night like this, whatever we had to give,
and no matter how far, to be so happy again.
After the war, he briefly taught high school, then worked for a church relief organization, but returned to the University of Kansas to complete his master’s degree in 1947. His master’s thesis was a memoir of his time as a conscientious objector, which became his first prose publication, Down in My Heart.
In 1948, he began teaching at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where he remained until his retirement in 1980, with the exception of sabbaticals, including one to earn his Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1954, and another to serve as Poetry Consultant for the Library of Congress (1970-71).
While he has been compared to Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg, William Stafford’s poems are rooted in his Depression-era childhood, his love of nature, and his deeply-held belief in pacifism. He’s a pragmatic idealist, well aware that our choices in life are often morally ambiguous at best.
James Dickey, in his collection of criticism Babel to Byzantium, wrote that Stafford’s “natural mode of speech is a gentle, mystical, half-mocking and highly personal daydreaming about the western United States.”
A Ritual to Read to Each Other
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
We wondered what our walk should mean,
taking that un-march quietly;
the sun stared at our signs— “Thou shalt not kill.”
Men by a tavern said, “Those foreigners . . .”
to a woman with a fur, who turned away—
like an elevator going down, their look at us.
Along a curb, their signs lined across,
a picket line stopped and stared
the whole width of the street, at ours: “Unfair.”
Above our heads the sound truck blared—
by the park, under the autumn trees—
it said that love could fill the atmosphere:
Occur, slow the other fallout, unseen,
on islands everywhere—fallout, falling
unheard. We held our poster up to shade our eyes.
At the end we just walked away;
no one was there to tell us where to leave the signs.
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
“Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”
Can even the person asked this question answer it?
- “Traveling Through the Dark” from Traveling Through the Dark © 1962 by William Stafford, Harper & Row — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42775
- “Once in the 40’s” from The Way It Is, © 1982, 1998 by the Estate of William Stafford, Greywolf Press – http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2001/01/29
- “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. © 1998 by William Stafford, Graywolf Press – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/58264
- “Peace Walk” from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. © 1994 by William Stafford, Graywolf Press – http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/53897
- “Ask Me” from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford, © 2014 by the Estate of William Stafford, Graywolf Press – http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/ask-me/
- West of Your City, Talisman Press, 1960.
- Traveling through the Dark, Harper, 1962.
- The Rescued Year, Harper, 1966.
- Eleven Untitled Poems, Perishable Press, 1968.
- Weather: Poems, Perishable Press, 1969.
- Allegiances, Harper, 1970.
- Temporary Facts, Duane Schneider Press, 1970.
- In the Clock of Reason, Soft Press, 1973.
- Someday, Maybe, Harper, 1973.
- Going Places: Poems, West Coast Poetry Review, 1974.
- Late, Passing Prairie Farm: A Poem, Main Street Inc., 1976.
- The Design on the Oriole, Night Heron Press, 1977.
- Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems, Harper, 1977.
- All about Light, Croissant, 1978.
- Passing a Creche, Sea Pen Press, 1978.
- Tuft by Puff, Perishable Press, 1978.
- Listening Deep: Poems (chapbook), Penmaen Press, 1984.
- Wyoming, Ampersand Press (Bristol, Rhode Island), 1985.
- An Oregon Message, Harper, 1987.
- A Scripture of Leaves, Brethren Press, 1989.
- The Long Sigh the Wind Makes: Poems by William Stafford, Adrienne Lee Press, 1991.
- Passwords: Poems, Harper, 1991.
- River As Metaphor: Poems, Red Apple Publishing, 1991.
- The Blue Train: And Other Poems, Woodhenge Press, 1990.
- Kansas Poems of William Stafford, Memorial Press, 1990.
- My Name Is William Tell, Confluence Press, 1992.
- Learning to Live in the World: Earth Poems, Harcourt Brace, 1994.
- The Darkness Around Us Is Deep: Selected Poems of William Stafford, Harper, 1994.
- Listening To The River: Seasons In The American West, Photographs By Robert Adams, Aperture (New York, NY), 1994.
- The Methow River Poems, Confluence Press (Lewiston, ID), 1995.
- Even in Quiet Places: Poems, afterword By Kim Stafford, Confluence Press, 1996.
- The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 1998.
- Down in My Heart, Brethren Publishing House, 1947
- Friends to This Ground: A Statement for Readers, Teachers, and Writers of Literature,National Council of Teachers of English, 1967.
- Leftovers, A Care Package: Two Lectures, Library of Congress, 1973.
- Socialism, Radicalism & Nostalgia: Social Criticism in Britain 1775-1830, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
- Writing the World, Haw River Press, 1988.
- Getting the Knack: Twenty Poetry Writing Exercises, National Council of Teachers of English, 1992.
- Who Are You Really, Wanderer: Pages in the Language of Respect and Conciliation,1993.
- The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment, Stanford University Press, 1993.
- Every War Has Two Losers: William Stafford on Peace and War, Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 2003.
- Detail of Ashland Montana Night Sky photo by ZaneSpang
- Detail of Whenachee River photo by Flynn L. Son
- Photo of William Stafford
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud