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Introduction

The writer and critic Fred Chappell once suggested that, for Stafford, the word world was a trope for loss,1 but in one of his later poems Stafford seemed to equate the world with something waiting to be found:

Writing the World

In the stillness around me that no one can cross
I am writing for life.
The world like a leaf turns as it falls.
this air might catch, an edge touch
that leaf, and a song begin till
all turns red.
I can feel that song by holding my hand
on a picture of fire, saying, "Burn" —

That kind of world. There is
fire and you say so — your tongue takes
flame. You burn into speech
You touch all you say.
World that waits, you are too many things.
I have only a part, and I choose you,
persona, someone: come true, sing,
flame out, be me — who I might have been.2

What readers found in William Stafford's work as an attitude toward the world that provided a way of living in the world. Writing was a way of life. It was a way of being aware of others — and of nature; of moving toward his inevitable death. William Stafford's poems expand outward. They "burn into speech." But they burn quietly, slowly, like a fire that has been banked, ready for the future.

When William Stafford died on August 29, 1993, the literary world lost one of its most generous members. He had spent a lifetime teaching and talking about poetry, showing us how the quiet voice of a poem can change the world- — if you listen well. This book is a revised and expanded version of Understanding William Stafford originally published by the University of South Carolina Press, 1989), which followed the course of Stafford's publications and noted not only his consistency, but also the development of new themes and concerns. Bill wrote his own "blurb" for that book, saying, "My poems tell me they like this book. True, they receive sympathy, but inside that embrace there is insight about their true heart and impulse. With this book they better their chances for finding congenial readers, always their aim, their ambition."3 As the author, I was somewhat puzzled — his poems like the book, but did he? However I also understood the characteristic modesty, the unwillingness to judge, the emphasis on the poetry rather than the poet himself. In this version, I have added to my original assessment of how the poems work, seeking to come even closer to their "true heart and impulse."

When a poet has died, especially an important poet--one who changed the shape of poetry and who helped to shape the work of others — there is a natural desire to read the work in its entirety, from beginning to end, in order to understand and assess its impact. When the poet is William Stafford, a man who wrote, perhaps, a poem a day for over 40 years and published over 60 books during that time, we understand that no publisher could afford a complete Collected Poems and we'd happily settle for a good, comprehensive selection. Now Kim Stafford, his son and literary executor, has compiled just such a selection (The Way It is: New & Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1998) so that readers and scholars alike can experience that written world.

This book is intended both as a comprehensive introduction for readers coming to Stafford seriously for the first time and as an overview of the work for those many readers already familiar with his poetry. It attempts to bring proportion and perspective to the extraordinarily large and varied work of a lifetime. It tries to open and explore what seem to me the most significant pathways into this rich oeuvre. Stafford invited us to "understand" his poems by understanding ourselves — our own relationship to language — with an honesty and insight that would match his own. "Suddenly this dream you are having matches / everyone's dream, and the result is the world".4

Judith Kitchen

Member of AAUP