Three Books by William Stafford


Tavern Books (2013)
68 pages; $15

Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford

Graywolf Press (2013)
128 pages; $16

We Belong in History: Writing with William Stafford

Ooligan Press (2013)
128 pages; $12.95

Reviewed by Katie Rensch

This year marks the centennial of former Oregon Poet Laureate William Stafford’s birth. For the occasion, Tavern Books, Graywolf Press, and Ooligan Press have each released a book celebrating the beloved poet. The books’ editors have compiled three unique collections of Stafford’s compelling and delicately complicated poems, demonstrating his masterful style and precise language that not only speak to his generation but remain current to this day.

Winterward,Stafford’s dissertation at Iowa State University, is one of the best collections of poems in terms of its subtlety and depth of style. Stafford masters intricate simplicity, allowing the beautiful architecture of poems open space for tension and conflict. This slow calculation is most present in “Boom Town,” “Lake Looks,” and “Letter from Oregon.”

In “Boom Town,” Stafford anthropomorphizes oil well engines that talk to the night, and these musings are felt by the snakes that represent the “tongue” and breath of the local people. In just four quatrains (a nuanced brevity that becomes a character trait), he portrays the complexity of a boom town and its aftermath.

Stafford writes in the poem “Lake Looks”: “The eerie eyes of normal people, / anvils for error, / we more than match with our lake looks, / depths of terror.” A present but not overwhelming exchange of alliteration and rhyme makes this line perfectly tuned for the ear. We first hear the e in “eerie” and “eyes” and then are brought back to the sound in the first rhyme word “error.” But this alone is not enough. Stafford pleasantly places the quick repetition of m in “more” and “match,” giving a brief break in sound that is followed by “lake looks.” This creates the all unexpected pleasantness of the “terror” rhyme with “error” that to my ear sounds like a final bell at the end of the line, not to mention the iambic lines with acutely timed trochaic, spondaic, and dactylic substitution.

“Letter from Oregon” moves through time and space by leaping from nature to doubt to old memories of home. This movement creates a feeling of disillusionment, and the reader must rely on the form and line break to be guided by the poem. Take the last stanza: “Somewhere in the ocean beyond Laramie / when the grass folded low in the dark / a lost fin waved, and I felt the beat / of the old neighborhood stop, on our street.” Even though Winterward is an early group of poems, it includes some of Stafford’s most finely crafted poems.

Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems emphasizes the poet’s strong relationship to the political world and his attempt to make sense of the natural one. In these poems Stafford always maintains his energy to understand and also proves that the poet does not need long sentences or an abundance of language to create poetry. Through short syntax, Stafford has instinct for concrete image and poetic tension that elevates each poem. For example, “Travelling through the Dark” is the kind of poem that I would rather avoid but cannot help myself from rereading; his harrowing account of finding a doe dead on the road, the fawn still warm in her belly, is achingly beautiful and true to nature, an emotionally difficult but worthwhile read. In the poem Stafford hesitates before pushing the doe off the canyon to prevent more swerving and more deaths alongside the road, but the reader feels for the speaker, the doe, and the unborn, now dead, fawn. The tone and immediacy of the scene is felt in the last four lines: “I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red; / around our group I could hear the wilderness listen. // I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—, / then pushed her over the edge into the river.” It is with this great drop off that Stafford leaves us for the next poem, an equally harrowing exploration of political and humanitarian mistakes titled “Mein Kampf.” Stafford does not toss any opinion into the face of the reader. Even in the most poignant line, “Old mistakes come calling: no life / happens just once,” he chooses to delicately move the reader to think in the most natural way, continuing: “You are a turtle with all the years on your back. // Your head sinks down into the mud. / You must bear it. You need a thick shell in that rain.”

Titles such as “Report to Crazy Horse,” “At the Grave of My Brother: Bomber Pilot,” and “A Catechism” point to the collection’s interweaving catalogue of landscape, national history, and family tensions. Graywolf has presented a collection of work noteworthy for any reader interested in poetic language.

We Belong in History is better placed alongside books of pedagogy than stacked on your literary bookshelf, but even so it occupies an important place in the collection of Stafford’s works, as it shows how his poems can be used in the classroom—a crossover that was important to Stafford. With lesson plans in the back, the book follows a simple layout. In three sections—nature, family, and moments in time—Stafford’s poems are followed by the work of middle school and high school students who won a contest for responding to Stafford’s work. What maybe seems unfair, though, is placing verdant writers after Stafford’s masterly executed and time-honed poems. Looking past that critique, the collection offers insight into what students glean from these poems in terms of tone and poetic movement.

Julia R., in the poem “Fourth,” in the section “On Nature,” uses similar syntax and sound as Stafford but draws on her own punctuation style: “tonight: / the sharp sweet opening to— / something, or so I whispered to my palms / they glowed electric with heat and melted ice cream under fracturing artificial stars / every year in July, we burn fissures across the sky.” Listening to the first stanza, I can hear the Stafford influence in the syntactical pauses, but what Julia does is place those pauses differently across the line. For example, the last line uses a caesura to draw on the “July” and “sky” rhyme, a lovely move that I did not see in the other Stafford collections. I prefer Stafford’s precise punctuation—unafraid to call attention to short sentences—but I think this young poet has tremendous instinct and certainly should keep Stafford as a mentor.

The poems in the two preceding sections, “On Family” and “On Moments in Time,” imitate Stafford’s precision with language and image less successfully, perhaps suggesting the difficulty of familial subjects and the maturity needed to isolate moments with great depth. These are just middle and high school students, after all, and their poems show the signs of early work.

In the preface to Winterward, Stafford writes, “As to techniques used in this collection, the writer is too near the creative process to be acutely aware of having relinquished any appropriate possibilities. The writing felt as if it took account of use of sounds, use of images, and use of ‘the dance of the intellect among words.’” Quoting Ezra Pound, Stafford modestly attempts to disguise his profound sense of form and the relinquishing of oneself to this form to create honest art. While readers know Stafford as a poet with keen instinct, these three collections of his work seem to say more about the editors than Stafford himself. In Winterward, editors expose readers to Stafford’s precise and yet refreshing communication with nature, but in Ask Me, readers see Stafford as a man trying to understand his complex world politically and socially. Finally, We Belong in History reveals Stafford as the teacher for all poets. This book attempts to connect the deep impact a mentor can have on a young apprentice of poetry and is certainly worth exploring for any writer interested in teaching or mentoring young poets. All of these books share the unique presence this centennial poet has had on contemporary American poetry.

Katie Rensch is a poet, essayist, and collaborative artist living in the Twin Cities.