Allegiances, by William Stafford
What is the significance of a title of a book of poems? When one is reading a book by William Stafford, of which there are many , it is easy to be aware of the combination of randomness and pattern that is a part of his works. As a prolific writer, his books are all varied affairs with poems of different register and subject matter, and that is no different here in this relatively early collection of poems that was published in 1970. Yet even though Stafford’s books are all varied, to a great degree there is a certain comfortable familiarity about them. Like many prolific writers, Stafford had a way of returning to the same concerns over and over again, and that is no different here than in his body of work as a whole, which I can say I am pretty familiar with. I feel it necessary to stress that this comfortable familiarity is far from a bad thing. Stafford’s concerns are worthwhile ones, his poetry generally excellent, and even if one does not agree with his perspective from time to time he does have a good way of making a reader think about the layers within his texts, and that is something immensely worthwhile.
The poems in this short book of less than 100 pages are divided into three numbered sections. Included in this book are some poems that have been anthologized and analyzed like the opening one (“With Kit, Age 7, at the Beach”), and other poems that didn’t attract a great deal of attention later on. The book was published during the time of the Vietnam War, and one can get a sense of that wartime context in the book’s title as well as the reference to PTSD in “Return to Single Shot” and the melancholy “The Girl Engaged to the Boy Who Died” which hints at the relationships broken by death in warfare. Yet these poems are far from strident–to be sure, Stafford had more than a few strident poems but it appears here that he is deliberately trying to lower the temperature of political discourse and not heighten it. Yet if you appreciate Stafford’s ruminations on creation, memory, war and violence, and family, there is a lot to appreciate here and this book would be a welcome addition to anyone’s voluminous collection of Stafford’s poetry works, not least because it was one of his major publishing house releases, of which there were only about half a dozen during his lifetime.
I will attempt to make sense of the title of the book, though, because I believe it has a great deal to do with the book’s overall context. In a time where people were questioning their allegiances to the United States, the author affirms his allegiances in a complex way. He writes of his children and reflects upon his brother’s grave, and he spends a lot of time writing about childhood memories from his days in Kansas as well as a wide variety of places within the United States and even beyond. Yet overall it would appear as if he pledges his allegiance first and foremost to the land rather than to the political establishment. He notes scenes like a preacher on a corner and trivial matters like turning on a light, yet in a time where darkness and hostility was rife it was indeed a notable act to focus on the light that was inside people and not the darkness of a world that seemed like it was falling apart. I wonder how many people simply looked for poetry that reflected their own political concerns here and neglected to think of the context of the work when put together as it was.
 See, for example: