William Stafford, one of America’s most widely read poets, was born in Hutchinson, Kansas in 1914. He worked at a variety of manual jobs during the Depression, and in 1942 was registered as a conscientious objector and interned in Civilian Public Service camps in Arkansas and California. His career as a poet and educator was shaped by his experience of hard physical labor and by the discipline and cooperative ethos of camp life, where he began his lifelong habit of daily writing in the early hours. His volume Traveling through the Dark (1962) won the National Book Award. In 1964 Stafford was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s prestigious Shelley Award, and in 1970 he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Four years later Governor Tom McCall appointed him Oregon’s fourth poet laureate.
His 1946 M.A. thesis at the University of Kansas, Down in My Heart, a prose account of his CPS experiences, is still in print. His doctoral dissertation, among the first awarded from the University of Iowa’s writing program, was a volume of poems that formed a basis for his first two collections, West of Your City(1960) and Traveling through the Dark (1962), which won the National Book Award. In 1964 Stafford was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s prestigious Shelley Award, and in 1970 he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Four years later Governor Tom McCall appointed him Oregon’s fourth poet laureate, a post he held till his death in 1993.
Stafford’s postwar career as a teacher began at Chaffey High School in greater Los Angeles, where he was recruited in 1947 by Lewis & Clark College president Morgan Odell. He remained at the college, with brief absences at San Jose State University and Manchester College, till his retirement in 1979. He was greatly in demand for the remainder of his life at poetry readings and as a leader of writing workshops, in both of which activities he had been a pioneer. His famously democratic approach to teaching, exemplified in his advice “No praise, no blame,” is on view in his four volumes in the University of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series, and in his 1967 report for the National Council of Teachers of English, Friends to This Ground. Stafford was also an infrequent but felicitous translator of poems from French, Spanish, Bulgarian, and most notably the Urdu ghazals of Ghalib.
William Stafford’s original poetry is contained in some fifty collections, selected in Stories That Could Be True (1977) and The Way It Is (1993). In addition to his publishers Harper & Row and Graywolf Press, he had significant multi-volume associations with Confluence, Honeybrook, and Perishable presses. His poems are accessible, sometimes deceptively so, with a conversational manner close to everyday speech. Among predecessors he most admired Wordsworth, Hardy, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. He wrote an authoritative introduction to a selection of poems by his CO colleague Brother Antoninus (William Everson), and shared two volumes of poem exchanges with Marvin Bell. This association, and his long friendship with Robert Bly, are explored in three fine video documentaries.
From his time at the Library of Congress, Stafford was also a frequent photographer of his fellow poets. His twelve thousand negatives are housed at Lewis & Clark College, along with forty years of daily drafts and typescripts, his voluminous correspondence, and some two hundred recorded readings and interviews. William Stafford was married in 1945 to Dorothy Frantz, with whom he had four children, Bret, Kim, Kit, and Barbara. He was active both physically and creatively to the last day of his life in August 1993, when he wrote an elegiac poem containing the line “I’m [still] here writing it down.” Those square brackets convey the modest irony characteristic of his whole career.
In the Night Desert
Serving with Gideon
The Farm on the Great Plains
The Star in the Hills
Thinking for Berky
Traveling through the Dark
With Kit, Age 7, at the Beach