Book Review: Crossing Unmarked Snow

Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views On The Writer’s Vocation, by William Stafford, edited by Paul Merchant & Vincent Wixon

The last two stanzas of the poem “Tuned In Late One Night” that open this book demonstrate both the approach of William Stafford to writing and my own appreciation of him as a poet [1]:

It’s like this, truth is: it’s looking out while everything
happens; being in a place of your own,
between your ears; and any person
you face will get the full encounter
of your self. When you hear any news
you ought to register delight or pain
depending on where you really live.

Now I am fading, with this ambition:
to read with my brights full on,
to write on a clear glass typewriter,
to listen with sympathy,
to speak like a child.”

There are several different kinds of writers. Some writers are insomniacs who write out of the darkness of night, unable to sleep because of the restlessness of their minds. Other writers are writers of the afternoon, enjoying a peaceful siesta in the heat of summer and writing languid and limp lines in the heat of the day. Some writers, like William Stafford, are writers of the morning, waking up at 4:30AM in order to write in those precious and fleeting moments of freedom before the darkness gives way to the dawn and the responsibilities of the waking world [2], a choice of writing time Stafford made because it allowed him the freedom to write before his obligations to the worker’s camps where he spent World War II as a conscientious objector. Each type of writing carries with it its own purpose and its own context, and Stafford, as a reflective thinker as well as a profound poet, shares examples of his work as well as a coherent approach to poetry in this slim (150 page) but deep work.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part focuses on the process of daily journaling that the prolific poet (Stafford is known to have written about 22,000 poems during the course of his productive life, even though he only published his first work of poetry when he was almost 50 years old) undertook as a way of capturing insights in the ordinary course of life and then doing the revising work to polish them and refine them. His poem “What’s in My Journal” on page 23 of this work expresses my own attitude and mix of perspectives as a writer:

“Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
things, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beautify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can’t find them. Someone’s terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.”

The second part of this book contains some of the author’s thoughts on other writers. As is the case with Stafford’s poetry, his literary criticism likes to let the authors speak for themselves with their own voice rather than attempting to foist an analysis onto them, and he shows a dissatisfaction with literary critics who are too keen in distilling the rich and diverse and often complicated strains of poetry into easy and pat solutions. However, he is generally tolerant and benevolent towards the beauty of poets of many different kinds of voices, refusing to label certain kinds of poets as beautiful and certain as ugly, but rather praising the authenticity of a poet to their own voice, and the dedication to the hard work of being honest with one’s self and one’s world but also kind to others. Of one poet, he says the following on page 58 of this work: “It is difficult to overstate the alienation this writer works from; he gives ordinary readers a view of the place of the absolutist, of the principled rebel. This is not to say that his stance is one of moral superiority; but he has taken the much-contemplated step of saying no to the state, and has been imprisoned for it. That passionate individuality referred to earlier resulted in long-suffering rebellion, in circumstances which continue to test individual values.” Indeed, his criticism is pointed, but honest, and when it comes to fellow poets, generally kind as well as perceptive, of the model we should all aspire to as literary critics.

The third section involves Stafford’s attitudes about writing workshops, both those he leads as a teacher as well as those in which he participates from others. As is often the case, he strives for a balance between the honest expression of feeling as well as the details that fix our thoughts and feelings to the earth, that keep life from becoming a mere abstraction and that allow us a fleeting glimpse of what makes ourselves and others tick. Stafford was known for his “no praise, no criticism” way of teaching writing, where he did not want students to either write for his adoration and lose track of their own voice nor want his students to be so burdened by their fears of judgment and rejection that they refused to pick up the pen in the first place and let the river of ink pour out of their hearts, minds, and souls in the first place. Stafford found his own muse in that balance between a child-like openness to experience and insight in small moments and ordinary situations and a deep and private sense of reflection upon those experiences, to let thoughts wander this way and that, the way a placid dairy cow gently and persistently chews her cud to make sure her meal of pasture grass or barn hay is fully digested.

It is striking that this book is the third book about the writer’s craft that William Stafford wrote. I have yet to read the other two, but based on this one they would provide a mixture of clever insight, breathtakingly beautiful poetry, and prosaic wisdom deeply bound up with the ordinary habits and experiences of thoughtful and creative people. For some reason writers often feel compelled to justify their craft in a way that would seem entirely redundant for lawyers or engineers or businessmen who would take offense to having to defend their legitimacy in ways that a musician or artist or writer feels compelled to do so often. As Stafford is quick to note, we do not write primarily for money, or for fame, or even for praise. We are writers because writing is what we do, because we have an inner voice longing to make itself heard, if only to ourselves. Yet, if we are fortunate, as William Stafford surely was, our works will be worthy of enduring long after we are dead and buried, echoing throughout the reflections and understanding of those who come after us and who will take up our mantle and tilt against their own windmills. As Stafford said himself in “An Afternoon In The Stacks,” on page 49 of this work:

…“When this book ends
I will pull it inside-out like a sock
and throw it back in the library. But the rumor
of it will haunt all that follows in my life.”

What more could any writer ask for than that?

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/every-war-has-two-losers/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/the-darkness-around-us-is-deep/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/book-review-strangers-at-my-door/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/the-golden-thread/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/a-story-that-could-be-true/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/while-the-world-sleeps-under-lead-gray-skies/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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