Book Review: Another World Instead

Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford 1937-1947, edited with an introduction by Fred Marchant

As someone who is very fond of the poetry of William Stafford [1], this book provides a worthy volume among the many that exist of the late poet’s work. Stafford was well-known for his pacifism during World War II; he ended up serving in a camp for conscientious objectors in California, as well as doing work elsewhere during the course of the war and the immediate postwar period. He was 37 before he had published any works of poetry, and had a long habit of writing early in the morning before the day began, and this book of early poems, most of which languished in obscurity, about half of the known early poems of Stafford’s body of work, provide insight into why Stafford was the kind of poet he was, given that he was preoccupied by the same concerns that he returned to over and over again with a great deal of delicacy [2] and skill, and although many of these poems are quite excellent, they demonstrate later editing and some of them are at least a little bit awkward, as Stafford was trying to set down his thoughts and took some time and plenty of practice to get into his mature form, so that by the time he published his poetry in earnest he was well-practiced after more than a decade of solid effort.

In terms of its contents, this book is short and straightforward. Containing 176 of the roughly 400 poems that William Stafford wrote during this collection, including all of the ones that had been previously published in other collections, as far as could be determined, which have been carefully noted in the endnotes to the book, as well as an introduction that provides the historical context of Stafford’s time in the CO camps and the origin of his idiosyncratic but firm stance against violence, this is a volume that shows a young artist at work reflecting upon life and also musing upon experience, the inner and outer streams of influence combining to make for arresting and deeply reflective poetry. The poetry included is, as near as possible, given in chronological order so that the reader can see Stafford come into form as a major poet from his earlier efforts in college to more mature efforts after World War II. The editor of this work, a conscientious objector during Vietnam and poet of no mean skill himself, has done a great job of attempting to wrestle with the many revisions of Stafford’s complicated body of work, and for making sensible decisions about where to indent a line for effect and where to allow for a lengthy line that in the typeset versions of the early poems were included on more than one line for purposes of space. The result is a pleasing collection that shows obvious care and craft on the part of the poet as well as the editor.

What these poems allow the reader to do, above all, is to see Stafford as a man, as his poetry is deeply personal and reflective, and even though it is restrained in the manner of Emily Dickenson, it exposes the belief system and essential compassion of Stafford for fellow humanity, as well as a certain sense of righteous anger about jingoistic calls for war and retributive violence. This is to be expected given the context of these writings within wartime. It is also somewhat unsurprising that Stafford should dwell so long on themes of home and exile given his life experience during these years as well. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that Stafford’s poems seem to dwell so long on the terrors of the night. Without wishing to speculate on the reasons for the author’s habits, it is noteworthy that Stafford developed the habit of writing early in the morning and that many of his poems dwell on darkness, on night, and on nightmares. Perhaps as a person whose sleep was troubled, and who had reasons to reflect rather gloomily on the night, he chose to write early in the morning as a way of turning that torment into the well-spring of beautiful art, and to allow him to write in such a way that turned the darkness of night into an expression of hope for the early morning instead, a way of making difficult situations the fountain of creative solutions for the betterment of life and art. The poems included are therefore not only the works of a young poet finding his way with words to skillfully write evocative and reflective verse, but are also a demonstration of the concerns of a poet who in many ways is not so unlike myself.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

“The Sound: Summer, 1945”

Not a loud sound, the buzz of the rattlesnake.
But urgent. Making the heart pound a loud drum.
Somewhere in dead weeds by a dry lake
On cracked earth flat in the sun.

The living thing raises the fanged head,
Tormented and nagged by the drouth,
And stares past a planet that’s dead,
With anger and death in its mouth. (82)

“Exile [II]”

The burning city of my sorrow hurts
And blinds the eye turned carelessly on it.
Avert the face; look full on it at night;
Be wary days. Increase the time of gaze
As time goes by, and hate grows strong,
And sight grows dim, and cities burn and die. (25)

“They taught me to be hurt…”

They taught me to be hurt.
I don’t know why.
They held my hand till dark,
Then said goodbye.

And those who held me up
Grew weaker then.
And those I thought were gods
Were frightened men.

Such gods, who told me wise
And left me dumb,
Will have to call me long
Before I’ll come. (65-66)

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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