Paper pub. date
January 1999
ISBN 9780870714566 (paperback)
6 x 9 inches, 160 pages. Biblio. Index.
Out of Stock Indefinitely

Writing the World

Understanding William Stafford

Judith Kitchen

An excellent introduction for readers coming to William Stafford for the first time and an overview of the work for the many readers already familiar with his poetry, Writing the World offers the best single guide to one of the most respected and celebrated poets of our time.

Judith Kitchen's comprehensive study follows Stafford's major publications, from his first books to the later works, including the posthumous collection, The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. All of Stafford's best-known books come under discussion, including Down in My Heart, a prose account of his experiences as a conscientious objector; West of Your City, his first collection of poems, published when he was 46; and Traveling Through the Dark, which received a National Book Award.

From this careful consideration of William Stafford's life work emerges an understanding of the poet's unique vision of the world and his sense of moral and spiritual responsibility. Kitchen shows the intimate relationship between Stafford's way of writing and his way of living, drawing on specific poems to illustrate his pacifism, his poetic techniques, and his daily writing practices — his way of "being receptive" to the creative act. She also examines his influential essays on the teaching of writing.

About the author

Judith Kitchen is a noted teacher, essayist, and publisher. She is the poetry reviewer for The Georgia Review and the author of several books, including Only the Dance: Essays on Time and Memory. She lives in Brockport, New York.

Read more about this author

1  Millions of Intricate Moves
    Understanding William Stafford

2  The Whole Land's Wave
    Down in My Heart and West of the City

3  Some Right Song
    Traveling through the Dark

4  Witness
    The Rescued Year, Allegiances, and Someday, Maybe

5  What the River Says
    Stories That Could Be True and Other Collections

6  Any Sight, Any Sound
    A Glass Face in the Rain and An Oregon Message

7  World Please Note
    Passwords, Other Collections,
    The Methow River Poems, and The Way It Is

8  Like a School of Fish
    Stafford's Poetic Technique

9  Willingly Fallible
    The Essays/The Art





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

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