“We have just begun to not fight.” – William Stafford
I sit at my desk surrounded by poetry. Before opening this morning, I gathered eighteen books by William Stafford from the library shelves and carried my armload down the stairs to the office.
William Stafford, who lived from 1914 to 1993, penned more than forty books of poetry. A lifelong pacifist, he was a conscientious objector during World War II. While working in the Civilian Public Service camps, Stafford established the habit of rising early to write. For fifty years he wrote every day in the quiet of early morning. He advocated and practiced writing with no agenda, without judgments or goals. “I get pen and paper, take a glance out the window (often it is dark out there), and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there is always a nibble-and this is where receptivity comes in.” About Writing the Australian Crawl, source of the above quote and the first of Stafford’s three books about writing and teaching writing, Stafford said, “My disquiets-my pacifist disquiets, I guess-about teaching and writing by competitive methods are in that book.”
In 1948 Stafford took his place on the English faculty of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where he taught until his retirement. Another of his collections on writing, Crossing Unmarked Snow, contains an interview titled “No Praise, No Blame,” Stafford’s anticompetitive and controversial philosophy of pedagogy: “If a student learns to seek praise and avoid blame, the actual feel and excitement of learning and accomplishing will be slighted in favor of someone else’s reaction.” Seeking praise outside oneself creates fear and inhibition, which can cripple a writer, Stafford believed. He said that art is inevitable, and fashioned his classrooms as relaxed, inclusive places where discussion about writing was grounded in freedom. “I think we should encourage ourselves and others to write, to get into action, to play, to do all sorts of things—you know, music . . . everything!”
In 1970 Stafford was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position now known as Poet Laureate. January 17 is the anniversary of his birth, called to my attention by The Writer’s Almanac, whose archive includes many of Stafford’s poems.
Allegiances (from Allegiances, 1970)
by William Stafford
It is time for all the heroes to go home
if they have any, time for all of us common ones
to locate ourselves by the real things
we live by.
Far to the north, or indeed in any direction,
strange mountains and creatures have always lurked-
elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders:-we
encounter them in dread and wonder,
But once we have tasted far streams, touched the gold,
found some limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful.
Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
where we are, sturdy for common things.