Book Review: Writing The World

Writing The World:  Understanding William Stafford, by Judith Kitchen

Being a person highly interested in poetry myself and very familiar with the writing of William Stafford [1], it is hard for me to imagine that he might not get his due because he is viewed as being too regional and too simple for sophisticated poetic audiences.  Yet I must remind myself that although I am very familiar with Stafford’s work and certainly appreciate him as a poet of the first order, I did not know anything about his poetry when I was myself a young regional poet of the Southeastern United States.  Yet I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture from a departing Oregon poet laureate, who if her own poems were not particularly impressive was fond of William Stafford and his works, and that counts for a lot.  If one does not write excellent poetry for oneself, at least in one’s appreciation of good poetry one can build a bridge of sympathy with one’s hearers or readers, and this book does good work in providing a thoughtful commentary on William Stafford’s poetry and, perhaps more important, his approach to writing as a way of life and not only as a career where one sought money and fame.

This short book of barely more than 100 pages contains nine chapters after its introduction to the life and writing of William Stafford.  The author begins with an exploration into the background of Stafford as being born in Kansas and taken west by his time as a Conscientious Objector during World War II, which isolated him from his neighbors (1).  The next six chapters contain discussions of the varied and often deceptively simple poems in the poems of his that were published during his life.  The author starts by examining the first couple of poetry books from William Stafford (2), then the stellar success and moral questioning of his breakthrough volume Traveling Through The Dark (3).  After this comes a discussion of Stafford’s work of witnessing to a troubled society through is volumes in the 1960’s (4), along with his collections of poetry during the 1970’s when the nation was caught up in the bitterness of the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate (5).  A discussion of Stafford’s refusal to censor himself or to limit his prolific poetic output (6) precedes his wrestling with his own mortality and the death of his eldest son in his last volumes of poetry that find him wanting the world to note him and view his work sympathetically (7).  The last two chapters of the book look at Stafford’s poetic technique in some detail with plenty of examples (8) and then look at the willing fallibility of Stafford’s and his refusal to silence his poetic voice through his sometimes sharp inner critic (9), which came out in his sometimes controversial essays

Overall, the author does a good job not only at introducing the reader to William Stafford as a poet as well as an essayist and a teacher of writing, but also in pointing out that many readers have seen in Stafford’s indirect and sometimes deliberately vague poetry whatever they wanted to see in it, trying to enlist a poet who was very reticent about strident devotion to causes and quarrels in their own quixotic ventures.  Stafford was a poet who wanted to be appreciated by a wide and common audience and so his writing is deliberately simple, so deceptively simple that those who are prone to looking at the difficulty of vocabulary to judge the worth of someone’s thinking processes are prone to underestimate the considerable moral complexity of Stafford’s poetry, which is always pushing the reader to ponder their own compromises and their own qualms about being people of honesty and integrity in a world that is hostile to the poet and to the peaceful but questioning sort of soul that Stafford and many other poets are.  To understand Stafford, we have to examine ourselves and ponder our own place in this troubled world and our own desire for others to stop and listen to us and take note of what we have to share from our own wellspring of experience.

[1] See, for example:

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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1 Response to Book Review: Writing The World

  1. Pingback: Book Review: A Place In The Country | Edge Induced Cohesion

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