A poet whom readers won't let go

Remembering William Stafford, a popular Northwestern poet

  • Rich Wandschneider


The Northwestern poet Bill Stafford died in 1993, leaving behind many books of poems and essays, along with hundreds of hand-scrawled and typed but unpublished poems and one-liners. They tend to stop and startle readers with their blend of the unexpected and the wise: "every war has two losers," for example, and "lower your standards."

The titles of his published poems invite the same kind of subtle, deep or playful reflection. Read "For the Unknown Enemy" and "Walking with Your Eyes Shut" or "Ode to Garlic."

Born in Kansas on Jan. 17, 1914, Stafford was a conscientious objector during World War II, who spent five years building trails and fighting fires. When the chairman of the draft board asked Stafford how he'd come by his pacifist beliefs, Stafford answered that it was the chairman himself -- his Sunday school teacher -- who'd first taught him that killing was wrong.

When the war ended, Stafford finished his education, began to write and went on to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. Later, he served as poet for the Library of Congress. For over 30 years, he was a teacher and writer based at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. He also traveled the world lecturing for the U.S. Information Agency - proof that he never held a grudge against the government that he had respectfully but fundamentally disagreed with during the war.

He rose early each morning to write, and he sent poems numerous times to publications, including The New Yorker, The Christian Science Monitor and the Nation, as well as to Oregon East and other small college and poetry publications around the country before giving up and "retiring" the unpublished ones. "Traveling through the Dark," one of his most anthologized poems, was sent out over a dozen times before its initial publication. One can't imagine Stafford ever disowning a poem; many are still finding their way into print and a new life even now.

After his unexpected death -- he had seemed a healthy 79 and had risen to write that morning as he did every day -- a group of friends, colleagues and students gathered to form the "Friends of William Stafford." The group, now a nonprofit, hosts an annual "poetry potluck," sends out a newsletter and sponsors "Stafford Birthday Poetry Readings" every January. The readings started with small Portland-area events but have since proliferated throughout Oregon and crept around the globe. Nowadays, there are readings in New York, Washington, Vermont, New Jersey, Nevada, Ohio, Japan, Germany and Scotland, as well as in the Pacific Northwest.

Why do Stafford's words continue to speak to us? With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lingering in our lives -- though for most of us at a remote distance - perhaps many now see the wisdom in his simple observation that "every war has two losers." Stafford's poems rarely took on the issues of the day head-on - he never spoke directly of the war in Vietnam or of racism in America -- but his message of peace and brotherhood remains powerful.

Stafford had a unique notion -- I think almost an indigenous one -- of our place in the universe. In a poem called "Starting with Little Things," he tells us to "Love the earth like a mole/... each day nuzzle your way." And although there is Christianity in his background, he seems to have sloughed off the braggy part about having "dominion over the earth and its creatures." He found lessons for his fellow humans in rocks, rivers, snowfall and yes, moles.

We've celebrated the life and work of Bill Stafford in Enterprise, Ore., for many years, but this year we're also inviting people to read "Ask Me," one of several poems placed on signs along the Methow River in Washington years ago, and gathered in a chapbook called Methow River Poems. Weather and gunshots have felled most of these ingenious interpretive signs, so now new friends of William Stafford and the river have come forward to bring them back.

"Sometime when the river is ice ask me," one poem begins. You might want to think about these words and your hometown river; then write your own poem, just as thousands have done, inspired by Stafford. Or don't write down anything at all; simply think your poem. Better yet, just live it, nuzzling like a mole close to your own sacred place.

Rich Wandschneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a member of the board of the Friends of William Stafford and the past director of Fishtrap in Joseph, Ore. For information on William Stafford celebrations, check http://www.williamstafford.org/.

Anonymous says:
Jan 21, 2011 07:00 AM
Glad to see the recent writings on poetry -- and would love to see a poem in every issue of HCN!
Anonymous says:
Jan 25, 2011 10:13 AM
Well evoked, Rich.
Anonymous says:
Jan 25, 2011 12:49 PM
Thank you, enjoyed this article.
Anonymous says:
Jan 25, 2011 04:06 PM
I'm a bit uncomfortable submitting a body, so will just send words.
Thank you Rich for this tribute to our own William Stafford. When I go to his poems, I always find my way back home. Thanks!
Anonymous says:
Jan 25, 2011 05:16 PM
"there is a lake somewhere so blue and far nobody owns it
and I know where it is"
Anonymous says:
Jan 25, 2011 06:21 PM
Paradoxically, because of Stafford, the darkness around us is often not so deep.
Anonymous says:
Jan 30, 2011 10:19 AM
One of the things indirectly referenced in the article was the Fishtrap community write about rivers in Wallowa County in the style of Stafford - which is to say, yourself. There are 103 posts on this 80 day blog. See it at
http://staffordpoems.blogspot.com/ to see what emerged.

There is also a new community write for the Wallowa Country http://ofthisplace-wallowacountry.blogspot.com/ in the same spirit.
Anonymous says:
Feb 07, 2011 12:35 PM
Would love to see regular poetry in the HCN!