Why is the poetry of William Stafford so enormously popular?
He is not just a “poet’s poet,” but his work resonates with a broad spectrum of the public. On the one hand, his work has been criticized as being “simplistic.’ On the other, his poetry achieves a kind of honesty and multi-leveled complexity that drives to the core of the human spirit, even while being utterly accessible. For the open-minded, his poems resonate with the human condition and the ways of nature, and seem deeply profound. He often addressed the reader directly, as in “Ask Me.”
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life...
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait...
What the river says, that is what I say.
As a teacher he was adored by his students and sometime highly criticized by other teachers of writing. His approach was less to teach, than to coax the best of their own self-expression from his students. He tried always not to suppress a student’s honest experience or emotion, but to encourage the full development of an individual’s style and message.
If you ever had the opportunity to meet him in person, you found him to be a gentle, courteous, modest man and you would probably have said to yourself, “What a nice person,” not at all what you would expect from one of the most lauded and highly respected poets of the late 20th century. William Stafford, in spite of his many awards and his overwhelming popularity, was what you would not be out of line to call “humble.”
Born in Hutchinson, Kansas in 1914 Stafford grew up in a family that encouraged literacy. As his family moved from town to town during the Great Depression, he worked at whatever came to hand to help support his family, from newspaper carrier to working in the fields and serving as an electrician’s apprentice.
During WWII, Stafford registered as a conscientious objector and served in Civilian Public Service Camps from 1942 to 1945. The work in these camps included forestry, road construction, fire fighting, and other public service assignments. It was at such a camp in California that he met his wife, Dorothy Frantz, with whom he fathered three sons and a daughter. His book, Down in My Heart, is based on his experiences in the camps and the other pacifists he knew there.
After the war he taught in several institutions until he entered the faculty at Lewis & Clark, an independent liberal college in Portland Oregon, in 1948. He stayed at Lewis & Clark until he retired in 1980.
Although he sometimes alludes to his Kansas beginnings in his work, he is regarded primarily as a Northwest poet. He wrote lovingly of Oregon and its rich and varied landscapes; of hiking and climbing along rivers, through forests, up mountains. At readings, he would sometimes segue into a poem so easily that his audience would only slowly realize that they were in the poem. Some of his readings can be heard here: http://www.williamstaffordarchives.org/browse/audio/
During his career he reaped awards such as the National Book Award for poetry for Traveling Through the Dark; Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now called Poet Laureate); Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975-1990; and the Western Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. Throughout his career he carried on voluminous correspondence, travelled across the country and around the world to teach and give readings, and wrote every day. His publications include over 55 volumes of poetry plus some prose, mostly reflections on writing, as well as numerous letterpress broadsides – not to mention thousands of poems published in magazines and journals. He died of a sudden heart attack at his Lake Oswego, Oregon, home in August, 1993, shortly after the Portland Poetry Festival was held in his honor. http://digitalcollections.lclark.edu/index.php/items/show/6283
I was fortunate enough to start collecting Stafford’s books in the 1970s at cover prices, and to have him sign many of my acquisitions. These days when I add scarce pieces to the collection I sometimes have to pay hundreds of dollars for each addition. Even some later editions and copies of journals containing one or more of his poems can command good prices. It does not seem likely that his popularity or the value of his works will wane in the near future.
The Estate of William Stafford, with his son Kim as executor, continues to publish work by and about him. Lewis and Clark College Special Collections retains the major portions of his personal archives, which contain his private papers, publications, photographs, recordings, and teaching materials. http://www.williamstaffordarchives.org/about/
The “Friends of William Stafford,” an unofficial non-profit organization, publishes broadsides and other memorabilia on occasion. The Friends also arranged to restore the Methow River Poem plaques that the Forest Service commissioned from Stafford shortly before his death and installed posthumously in 1994. The plaques, stationed across 70 miles that follow the Methow River in Eastern Washington, had begun to deteriorate in recent years. http://www.williamstafford.org/pages/methowsigns.html
You can find partial bibliographies of Stafford’s publications online, but James W. Pirie’s William Stafford, An Annotated Bibliography is pretty much definitive at 542 pages, and includes just about everything that he wrote or had a part in writing, editing, translating, or reviewing; as well as books about him or his writing.