on Another World Instead, early poems of William Stafford, edited by Fred Marchant (Graywolf Press)

As an editor of a little magazine in the mid-1970s, I wrote to Bill Stafford asking if he would send some work. He responded with a batch of a dozen poems. Soon he became a regular contributor. The bulky packets would arrive a few times a year, and I would publish a poem or two. In 1977 I invited Stafford to Madison to read in the university’s poetry series. At dinner before the event, I remarked that one or two of his poems per pile always struck me as much more valuable than the others. He quickly agreed. So I asked, “Then why do you send so much work if you know most of it isn’t very strong?” He replied, “If you had two kids, and one of them had a clubfoot, would you love the crippled kid any less?”

StaffordBWsmile.jpgI’ve been telling this anecdote for years just to listen for the response, which almost always falls into one of two camps. The first appreciates the unaffected, open-hearted, and generous attitude Stafford had about his own work; one doesn’t write for perfection but expression. The counter response insists that judgment is an essential requirement of the serious artist; one’s calling calls for nothing less than the best solution in every work. In any event, Stafford wrote a lot of poems that were never published in magazines, and many that were published never appeared in his books.

StaffordCover.jpgWhen his new and collected poems, Stories That Could be True, appeared in 1977, the earliest poems included there were from West of Your City (1960). The Stafford archives in Portland, Oregon include about 400 poems from 1937-1947. Fred Marchant has chosen 176 from that group for Another World Instead. During these years, Stafford began writing every day, rising early. He practiced this habit throughout his life, “maintenance work or repair work on my integrity” as he called it. As a conscientious objector during World War II, Stafford worked in the Civilian Public Service Program on forestry and soil-conservation programs.

EASY

Our men walk lightly and scatter over the mountains.
They go away casually and you can’t find them.
You can’t ever find them. They don’t care.
They don’t even tie their shoes or look back.
They climb over the rocks and stand easily in the sun.
They can build roads and lift stones all day and laugh on the way home.

You ask them a question, but you can’t ever find them.
“God don’t like war,” says one.
“I’ll go back, I’m willing. I’ll walk the rows of corn,” says another.
“But why should I kill people? It’s silly.”
They stroll through those tall mountains.
They don’t care.

As Marchant notes in his introduction, in these poems Stafford tried out many forms and tones, though here and throughout his career he stayed close to the short lyric. “The poems of these years tell us he experimented with capitalization, punctuation, and syntax, with colloquial diction, with full rhymes, slant-rhymes, and none,” writes Marchant. By the late 1950’s, he was writing poems like “At the Bomb Testing Site.”

AT THE BOMB TESTING SITE

At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense,
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off
than people could see, an important scene
acted in stone for little selves
at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it
under a sky that never cared less.
Ready for a change, the elbows waited.
The hands gripped hard on the desert.

StaffordBWCoat.jpgStafford once wrote, “What moves me, what looms in my life, may not be what works in managing the material and political parts. So I learn not to depend on the innermost elements of my being, but to subordinate feelings and preferences. My success depends partly on my repression.” This statement points to the maturation of his technique from the poems here in Another World Instead to the work of his middle and later years – although “technique” isn’t a word he liked to use. In a 1972 interview with Cynthia Lofsness, he said, “It’s not technique, it’s a kind of stance to take toward experience, or an attitude to take toward immediate feelings and thoughts while you’re writing.”

The “stance” was what he focused on, not so much a set of principles or values as hearing that patient, “repressed” voice speaking through the descriptive elements. He learned how to withhold the obvious sounds of his youthful enthusiasms and exclamations, and to “manage the material.” He wrote, “A writer is a person who enters into sustained relations with the language for experiment and experience not available in any other way.”

Another World Instead shows the young poet accepting the responsibilities of freedom – to object to the war while voicing his relation to a culture that would have happily packed him off to violate his nature. The CO declares his status, and these poems are also often declarative: “Today there is more smoke in the world / than ever before. / There are more cities going into the sky / helplessly, then ever before” (“These Mornings”). There’s a wonderful poem called “Family Statement” that takes up the figure of his brother, “flying a plane in this war.” He goes on, “My brother, in the army that wins, and I / remember those times when Pop came home / and everyone meeting him at the door. / My brother and I are both crying / in this glittering chromium time / in the saddest war.”

StaffordBWThird.jpg“We do not ‘correct’ a piece of writing,” Stafford wrote, “we question a life.” And so he sent a lot of “incorrect” poems into the mail. Like those men, the COs, who walked lightly through the mountains, he didn’t care about certain prevailing points of view. He played the odds. If one keeps questioning, eventually you get some things right.

[Published April 1, 2008. 128 pp., $24.00.]