Tag Archives: William Stafford

The Communion of Reading: William Stafford

The poet William Stafford and my father were born in the same year, 1914, one hundred years ago. I’m having trouble reconciling that, for some reason.

My father fought in World War II; Stafford was a conscientious objector. Stafford was a poet and a teacher. My father loaded trucks for a living.

As far as I can intuit, there is one thing that they shared: there was a depth of feeling, tinged with sorrow, that framed their lives. One found an outlet; the other did not.

In this one hundredth anniversary year of his birth, a wonderful new collection of William Stafford’s work has been assembled, Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, compiled by his son, Kim Stafford.

stafford ask me

Perhaps the two most complex relationships in (human) life are between mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. Kim Stafford’s collection of his father’s work testifies to a depth of understanding and emotion in life, including the father/son relationship, that is rare, indeed, even amongst the finest of poets.

My father was an avid reader though, like most of us, not often of poetry. Still, one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me was a penchant for the works of Thomas Hardy. For an aging, exhausted shipping clerk to catalyze this kind of connection, classic author to father to son, was no mean feat. It was a way to express emotion, something far more difficult than even the grueling, mind numbing job which helped shorten his life.

Oddly enough, looking at what I’ve written so far, it is readily apparent that, during this National Poetry Month, this wonderful retrospective selection of William Stafford’s work has, in memory, given me back my father in a moving, important way.

That is what the communion of reading can do.

Here is a poem by William Stafford from Ask Me that speaks directly to the feelings I’ve been grappling with, in a manner I feel no prose account might do:


My father could hear a little animal step,
or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us have never been.

More spoke to him in the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.

My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that far place.

– William Stafford

~ Don

PS:  Thanks,  David Mahler, for the gift of William Stafford.


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The Anticompetitive Poet – William Stafford

“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.” writing-the-australian-crawlyou-must-revise                       crossing-unmarked-snow

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.



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