Book Review: Writing The Australian Crawl

Writing The Australian Crawl: Views On The Writer’s Vocation, by William Stafford

“Quiet in the earth a drop of water came,
and the little seed spoke: “Sequoia is my name.”

from B.C., by William Stafford (p. 25)

This particular book is the second book I have reviewed by William Stafford [1], and it is a less polished work than its successor (which was the third volume of writing about writing). That said, even if it is less polished a bit more repetitive, it is still a worthwhile work in its contents as well as its wrestling with the process of creating art, which is the dominant concern that Stafford returns to again and again in poems, interviews, and short essays. Stafford seeks here, as elsewhere, to balance between his own strong and sincere perspective and a strong desire to avoid making definitive statements that cannot be fully supported, a tension that is common between the insistent individuality and also the disinclination for moral firmness that one finds commonly among postmodern thinkers.

There is some paradox here, as might be expected, between the author’s denial that artists are necessarily more sensitive than others, and his statement on page 39 that “the artist is not so much a person endowed with the luck of vivid, eventful days, as a person for whom any immediate encounter leads by little degrees to the implications always present for anyone anywhere.” It is the universality of the insights that people can have even if only a few people are responsive to them that cuts strongly against the postmodern dislike of the author for the moral clarity of the Old Testament, or the neurotic anxiety of so many contemporary artists. Stafford has his beliefs, and a fair amount of serenity, but he seems to dislike imposing his beliefs on others, which account for his characteristic ambiguity but also his essentially likeable attitude that makes his writing so humane and gentle, if sometimes startling.

This particular book also explores, in several different pieces, some of the more fascinating elements of Stafford’s thoughts [2] on the desirability of resistance but the disinclination for violence, the fact that the creation of art is a subtle task that often involves small and incremental decisions that lead to the crystalization of insight without prior intentionality, and the fact that writing often involves playful experimentation that may not suggest the worldview or beliefs of the writer himself (or herself) but that simply takes a slight push in a direction and runs with it as long as the thread last. In defending the legitimacy of art, Stafford points to art as not being the domain of a small cultural elite but everyone, and he celebrates the universality of art and its practice as the way in which that art which is the best may ultimately be sifted from its contemporaries, to the place of a Dickenson or Austen.

Of particular interest as well is the way in which Stafford manages to handle two disputes for writers. On the one hand, Stafford manages to avoid antagonism against readers and editors, with whom writers can sometimes be impatient, saying on page 12: “A writer is a person who enters into sustained relations with the language for experiment and experience not available in any other way. An editor is a friend who helps keep a writer from publishing what should not be published. A reader is a person who picks up signals and enters a world in language under the guidance of an earlier entry made by a writer. Literature is not a picture of life, but is a separate experience with its own kind of flow and enhancement. Anyone enters that world of writing or literature by writing or reading, venturing forward part by part, unpredictable part by unpredictable part.” Additionally, Stafford points out something very flattering about the appreciation of art, and that is that what we are able to appreciate and enjoy speaks about our own excellence as well as the excellence of others. We cannot appreciate something without being on its level and being able to see it more or less as a peer. That which we cannot relate to, we cannot appreciate. This is a wise insight, and one with many implications.

So, even though this particular book is a bit rambling and repetitive (some poems, including B.C, are mentioned twice), it is a book that is full of interesting commentary that is worthy of reading and reflection. In many ways, it is like the poetry of Stafford itself, full of words, often traveling over the same ground and dealing with the same small related set of concerns, and also coming up with occasionally startling and immensely beautiful insights. I suppose, if we are fortunate, that the same may be said about all of us who write or create at all. We may not always create well, but we cannot create well unless we keep at it. There is something to be said for persistence, for walking the Australian crawl across the outback.


[2] Previously remarked upon here:

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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