years before driving to Missoula, Montana, to interview Richard Hugo, I
was a student in the Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado.
I was driving into Denver with my friend Reg Saner to conduct a
program. We had turned off U.S. 36 onto I-25 and were heading
toward downtown Denver when, in one of those moments James Hillman
in The Soul's Code, dictated, perhaps, by one's daemon, I
I should do with my studies ÷ with my life. I should drop
idea of doing a thesis in medieval literature to please some father
and instead do a thesis in twentieth-century American literature, about
William Stafford. My thesis would be immediately publishable, for
there were no books about him. Best of all, I could drive out to
Lake Oswego and interview him for the book. I could actually meet
I met him was in July 1972 at his house. He was
It was thrilling to meet him, but it was daunting, too, because he was
so much like my own father, Alan. Wiry, elfin, with the face of a
fox, Stafford was curious about everything around him, absolutely
Alan had graduated from Harvard with a B.S. in chemistry in 1925, the
after Stanley Kunitz had. They both graduated summa cum
All my life I had been surrounded by Bell Labs physicists gossiping
who was in line for the Nobel Prize this year, who was at Cal Tech, who
was at Cambridge at the Cavendish Laboratory, who was at M.I.T.
gossip of scientists is depressingly similar to the gossip of
Like the Bell Labs scientists, Bill was on the leading edge of his
lecturing everywhere, everywhere in demand. He was a
From being in the presence of Bell Labs geniuses for my entire
I'd learned to recognize them, like a bird-watcher. I had
It was a kind of survival technique, to avoid making a fool of oneself
in the presence of some of the most high-powered intellectuals in the
Some of them had worked with J. Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan
Los Alamos had been their vortex.
with America, Richard Howard refers to the "arrogant otherness" of
the persona in Stafford's first poetry collection, West of Your
It has been pointed out by the poet/critic Judith Kitchen that "West of
Your City" alludes to Frost's title North of Boston.
city" is Boston. "You" is Frost. Howard, the quintessential
New Yorker and European traveler, is right, but only partially.
"otherness" wasn't arrogant. It was the otherness of every major
mind I've had the privilege to observe. It was the neutral,
canny posture of intellectuality ÷ an appetite that is
and endlessly curious. And cold. What must have it been
having Stafford as a father? Not easy. It is now legendary
how Stafford, so as not to disturb his family, would get up well before
dawn to write. He described the routine in his poem "Mornings":
rested, the brain begins to burn
and glow like a coal in the dark,
early÷four in the morning, cold, with
frost on the lawn.
too, with Stafford's cooperative venture with his son Kim: the book Braided
Apart. We are less familiar with the fact that Stafford's
son, Brett, killed himself. Brett must have felt as I did:
to Alan, I would never measure up. Virtually Alan's last words to
me ÷ we were discussing Wittgenstein ÷ were, "Son, until
you know German,
you'll never understand Western culture."
son Kim visited Kansas State in the fall of 1998, as the primary
in a conference in honor of William Stafford, he and I talked about
suicide in 1988. Kim said that the suicide had been about a love
affair and that his father had said of Brett: "He wasn't mean enough."
mistaken identification of Stafford as a "regional" poet continues: In
the New York Times obituary of August 31, 1993, the headline
"William Edgar Stafford, Professor and Poet of the West, Dies at
The writer, Wolfgang Saxon, wrote:
Both his life and his writing looked westward or to the Northwest,
and he found his themes in small-town family life and in nature.
His work was infused with the vast expanses of desert and prairie,
mountain ranges and sky.
a wildcat, Stafford lived his life in camouflage. He camouflaged
his true nature. A poem which for me epitomizes this camouflage
his poem "For the Governor" in Someday, Maybe:
Heartbeat by heartbeat our governor tours
the state, and before a word and after a word
over the crowd the world speaks to him,
thin as a wire. And he knows inside
each word, too, that anyone says,
another word lurks, and inside that...
Sometimes we fear for him: he, or someone,
must act for us all. Across our space
we watch him while the country leans
on him: he bears time's tall demand,
and beyond our state he must think the shore
and beyond that the waves and the miles and
On the surface, the poem
a man campaigning for the governorship of a state like Kansas.
read closely, the poem yields a second meaning. The poem is about
the relation of the mind to the body. "Across our space / we
him while the country leans / on him: he bears time's tall
The mind is able to conceive of its end, the body's eventual
Moreover, the mind is able to conceive of itself: consciousness of
is what makes us particularly human. This, the poem's true issue
÷ Stafford's intellectuality ÷ has been
camouflaged. I asked him
about a female figure named Ella who appears in some of his poems about
rural Kansas life. He remarked that "Ella" is a female
poem, "Report from a far place," camouflages its sophistication in a
that is also typically Staffordian. The poem reads:
Making these word things to
step on across the world, I
could call them snowshoes.
They creak, sag, bend, but
hold, over the great deep cold,
and they turn up at the toes.
In war or city or camp
they could save your life;
you can muse them by the fire.
Be careful though: they
burn, or don't burn, in their own
strange way, when you say them.
At first glance, this
to be about writing, "making word things." Read closely, however,
it appears to be more about reading than about writing, especially the
lines "In war or city or camp / they could save your life; / you can
them by the fire." The cleverest line, though, is the offhanded
"and they turn up at the toes." Often, in Stafford poems, casual
asides are profound. If we think of the way in which the
toes of skis or snowshoes deflect the snow, deflect the world, we find
a metaphor for the way in which the abstract nature of words deflects
world from us and thus keeps us from suffocating in existence, allowing
us to ride "on top of" things momentarily. The title puzzles us,
until we remember that in Stafford's symbolic vocabulary "near" means
and "far" means "different." The "far" place which imposes "word
things" upon the world is the mind.
side of Stafford, though, that dispenses with camouflage. It is
affable. It is fierce. We glimpse this side, at the end of
"Our City Is Guarded by Automatic Rockets," where he says:
There is a place behind our hill so real
it makes me turn my head, no matter. There
in the last thicket lies the cornered cat
saved by its claws, now ready to spend
all that is left of the wilderness, embracing
its blood. And that is the way I will spit
life, at the end of any trail where I smell any hunter.
The last piece Stafford
before his death was a review of the anthology Against Forgetting:
Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forche. His approach to
the anthology is prickly:
But there are inherent problems in a collection like this.
the individual glimpses that create the distinction
a strain on the thesis of the book; books that
the thesis can hardly attain the shiver of the
distinguishes lively discourse. We can be
can encounter the thoughts and emotions of
it takes something more to validate
And later in the review
above achieving authenticity in a survey
lurks everywhere in the selections: quality is
the need for wide representation put a strain
And how vividly do you have to suffer
I feel a bump when the explanatory note says, "the Germans
All Germans? And similarly when Carolyn Forche
work seemed controversial to my American
(Who, me?) The labels in the book...put a
snagged my attention, kept me wary of living on
high of atrocity hunger.
Morally and intellectually
exacting as Stafford's mind was, there was a softer side to him.
I glimpsed it most vividly in the summer of 1987 when he and I were on
the staff of the Port Townsend Writers Conference. Several of us
were being driven back to Fort Worden State Park from dinner at a
Stafford was in the front seat, Marvin Bell was beside me in the middle
seat. As we drove past a brightly lit bar that was the students'
hangout, Marvin called to the driver to let him out there.
burst out to Marvin: "Must you?" It was a motherly gesture, pure
reflex, like a mother instinctively reaching out to stop a toddler from
walking into a busy street. I realized that he loved Marvin.
after Stafford suffered his heart attack at home, Henry Taylor called
with the news, my first thought was, "How lucky to go like that, that
and that Stafford had indeed led a lucky life. He himself had
me as much, years ago at Stephens College, when I had invited him
I don't remember what I was mumbling to him, but he suddenly faced me
glared at me, pure wildcat: "You don't understand." He hissed it.
was just lucky." He took nothing for granted. And I
also, of Willa Cather's famous story "Neighbor Rosicky":
looked up at the doctor with a gleam of
his queer, triangular-shaped eyes.... Rosicky's
habit of looking interested ÷ suggested a
and a reflective quality that was gay
This gave him a certain detachment,
of an onlooker and observer.
The end of the story
friendship with his daughter-in-law, Polly:
had a sudden
feeling that nobody in the world, not her
or anyone really loved her as much as
It perplexed her. She sat frowning and
it out. It was as if Rosicky had a special gift
something that was like an ear for music
or an eye
colour. It was quiet, unobtrusive; it was merely
After he dropped off to sleep, she sat holding his
flexible brown hand. She had never seen another
like it. She wondered if it wasn't a kind of gipsy hand,
it was so
and quick and light in its communications ÷ very
farmer. Nearly all of the farmers she knew had huge
like mauls, or they were knotty and bony and
looking, with stiff fingers. But Rosicky's hand
flexing, muscular,...it was a warm brown
cleverness in it,...and something else which
call "gipsy-like" ÷ something nimble and
in the way that animals are.
I would like to imagine
Stafford died as Rosicky did, as described by Willa Cather:
After he had taken a few stitches, the cramp began in his
He put his pipe down cautiously on the
bent over to ease the pull. No use ÷ he had
get to bed if he could. He rose and groped his way
floor, which was rising and falling like the
deck of a
At the door he fell. When Mary came in, she
there, and the moment she touched him she knew
In my experience, Cather
is the only
author to describe accurately, without sentimentality, in the figure of
Rosicky, the mysterious, inexplicable quality of human goodness
÷ its elusiveness,
its disinterestedness, its absence of vanity. William Stafford
all this. He lived it. Determined to keep the truth of his
genius from embarrassing us, he camouflaged it as carefully, as
as he could.
© by Jonathan Holden