William Stafford Returns to Lewis & Clark

William Stafford was a significant national figure in three overlapping fields. As a poet, he was and is revered by readers around the world; while he was alive he won many honors, including the National Book Award for Traveling through the Dark, and terms as poet laureate of Oregon and of the United States.

Through a generous family gift, the William Stafford Archives enable the college to share the renowned poet’s work with a new generation.

William Stafford's inauguration as Oregon Poet Laureate, April 1974. From left: Lewis & Clark's President John Howard, Governor Tom McCall, William Stafford, Dorothy Stafford. “On the first day of class,” records William Stafford, “Even before we settle down … my tentative, artful job begins … If I wait, be easy in talk–on anything for a few minutes–they will tell me … and I will yield to their sayings … In a slow, evasive way, I let the term ease into being.” 1

Stafford called these beginning encounters “the minuet,” the dance steps of a delicate partnership between teacher and student: “The first move is the student’s move, not mine.” 2 Many Lewis & Clark graduates will probably remember William Stafford’s “slow, evasive” early encouragement of students to break the silence, share their work, risk a personal view.3

During his 30 or so years as a teacher at Lewis & Clark, between 1947 and 1979, he earned a national reputation for his distinctive teaching methods, crystallized in two challenging prescriptions: as a teacher, to avoid both praise and blame, and as a poet, in response to writer’s block, to lower your standards and carry on.4 Generations of students experienced his egalitarian classroom philosophy and his unswerving belief in individual conscience, which had been tested by internment as a conscientious objector to World War II.

William Stafford was a significant national figure in three overlapping fields. As a poet, he was and is revered by readers around the world; while he was alive he won many honors, including the National Book Award for Traveling through the Dark, and terms as poet laureate of Oregon and of the United States. In recognition of his work as an educator, he was chosen by the National Council of Teachers of English to write their 1967 commission report, “Friends to This Ground.” And he was first and last a pacifist, whose earliest book was a prose narrative (Down in My Heart) of his time in Civilian Public Service camps, and whose final poems include sharp satires of the first Gulf War. In all these fields he won his colleagues’ respect and affection, enhanced by his indefatigable travels for readings and workshops across America and in United States Information Agency visits to western and eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Japan.

Through the enormous generosity of his wife, Dorothy; his son Kim (William Stafford’s literary executor and director of Lewis & Clark’s Northwest Writing Institute); and his daughters, Kit (BA ’75) and Barbara (BA ’79), Stafford’s voluminous archives arrived at the Aubrey Watzek Library in April 2008. This donation creates an opportunity to share the wealth of Stafford’s materials with a national readership of writers, students, and scholars.5

Since William Stafford’s death in August 1993, books, tapes, and translations of his work have appeared almost every year, including major collections of poetry. He is still very much alive in his many books and recordings.

But the arrival of his archives at Lewis & Clark enables a new phase to begin. With the invaluable help of student interns, Special Collections staff can prepare the materials for digitization and selective presentation on Watzek Library’s website, where a new generation will be introduced to Stafford through interactive assemblages of drafts and finished poems, sound recordings and videos of readings, and printed commentaries by the poet and others.

In addition, Lewis & Clark recently opened Watzek Library’s handsomely refurbished William Stafford Room as a specialized reading library for students and other literary researchers.


William Stafford as Poet

Three of Stafford's earliest put-togethers: Some of the Words We Said (August 1945), Survivors (January 1945), and Les Miserables (F... William Stafford has been celebrated for his habit of daily writing, his practice of early morning composition in what he viewed as the deliciously solitary hours between 4 and 7 a.m.6

He had discovered the freedom of these early hours in the camps for conscientious objectors, where the official day started at 7:30 a.m. Later in life, he added a three-mile run in darkness on alternate days. Stafford believed that the unconscious mind, if given attention, will respond–a belief borne out in his impressive manuscript record of 20,000 consecutive daily pages, each headed with the day’s date, and almost without exception containing a finished poem.

His regular record followed a common pattern: first the date, then frequently a journal entry, an aphorism, or a dream,7 and then, with the pump primed, a stunning first line, sometimes abandoned (there was plenty more material on the way), and finally the draft and immediate revisions of a complete poem. Day after day, we witness the same pattern: something like two hours of journal entries and reflection (“You don’t have to wait very long if your standards are low.”) followed by a complete poem. Or in his characteristically throwaway formulation: “My writing method is to make myself a waffle and then to sit and think.”

How valuable are these manuscript pages? They provide evidence that the poet viewed the writing life as one requiring persistence and commitment. They illustrate an undeviating fidelity to subconscious processes, and they show how much practice goes into making what he called “negotiable poems.” The early manuscripts are full of revisions. By the end of his life, we see poems spilling out on the page with few or no changes needed. But he had always said it was easy.

William Stafford as Teacher and Scholar

The archives offer many evidences of Stafford’s life as a scholar and teacher. First, there are the typescript drafts of his many formal addresses on the writing life, delivered at literary symposia or writing workshops or commencements–essays filled with aphoristic wisdom as much about life as about poetry.8

Manuscript draft of Traveling through the Dark, written at Yaddo artists' community in New York in June 1956. The cream of Stafford’s writings on the craft of poetry, on workshops, and on his educational theories is gathered in four volumes from the University of Michigan Press in their Poets on Poetry series.9 The first of them, Writing the Australian Crawl, remains the all-time best seller of the series. The archives also preserve a handful of precious folders with Stafford’s notes and exam questions for literature classes.

Then there is the shoebox containing well over a thousand index cards, many created during his doctoral studies at the University of Iowa, and many others made for use at Lewis & Clark, with his teacher’s notes on books taught, key passages for discussion, and provocative questions. 10 The first card reads, “You could save the world by torturing one innocent child. Which innocent child?” Another half dozen cards summarize his thoughts on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And there is the card carrying the opening paragraph of Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Stafford would have enjoyed reading it aloud, relishing his students’ gradual discovery of the Irish dean’s wicked humor.

William Stafford as Pacifist

While he was interned as a conscientious objector in Civilian Public Service camps from 1942 to 1946, William Stafford found his voice as a poet, writing antiwar poems of protest and satire from the 1940s to the end of his life.

On February 2, 1944, at Los Prietos camp near Santa Barbara, he assembled two typewritten collections, Les Miserables (1937 to 1943) and Collected Verse (1937 to 1943), which contained 31 and 46 poems respectively. These collections (Stafford called them “put-togethers”) were bound as small chapbooks, six by nine inches, between card covers cut from manila folders.

An early draft of Returned to Say, written in April 1956 and published in Traveling through the Dark. These first two volumes were followed on January 8, 1945, by Survivors–Poems of 1944, 47 poems assembled at Belden camp on the Feather River in northern California, the start of a sequence of annual books for 1945 through 1950, and two volumes of poems of various years between 1941 and 1960.

These 12 valuable handmade books, containing almost 600 unique poems, represent the poet’s personal selection of work written in the two decades before his first published collection in 1960. We can add to them now a surprise recent gift to the archives, a quite different selection, Some of the Words We Said, sent to his fellow CO Tom Polk Miller in August 1945, and generously donated to the college by Miller’s nephew Eric Ladner. Most of these wartime and early poems remained unseen by the public until Fred Marchant’s selections were published last year in Another World Instead.

William Stafford and Memoir

Stafford’s habit of creating small personal volumes continued when he began to publish his work. For each of his major collections, from Harper & Row, Graywolf Press, Perishable Press, Confluence Press, and Honeybrook Press, Stafford assembled a “put-together” of his documentary copies for the book. These half-page typescripts, with accompanying correspondence files, preserve all the revisions, records of submissions and acceptances, and editorial decisions that went into 33 volumes between 1960 and 1993, an extraordinarily complete record of a busy lifetime’s work.

Stafford never wrote a formal autobiography, but the archives contain brief, and sometimes more extended, passages of carefully penned reminiscence. (In addition we have the wartime narrative Down in My Heart, short autobiographical pieces in the Michigan books, and Kim Stafford’s memoir Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford.) And the meticulously preserved daily writings themselves can be seen as a formal documentary record of a life.

Then there are the thousands of photographic negatives, documenting not only the growth of a family of children, but also a surprisingly full catalog of the poets encountered by Stafford over many decades. At myriad poetry readings, social gatherings, symposia, and literary conclaves, most notably during his 1970-71 tenure as poet laureate at the Library of Congress, Stafford was a constant, almost invisible presence behind his camera, recording his colleagues, sometimes in fine portraits, often in refreshing informality.

Through the careful work of Patty Wixon in digitizing the surviving readings and interviews, and through the video recordings of Vincent Wixon, Michael Markee, Haydn Reiss, and others, we also possess hundreds of hours of William Stafford on screen.11 Stafford was not a seeker of the limelight, but he saw to it that his life and work were adequately recorded.

Looking to the Future

William Stafford’s papers are a national treasure. As part of its custodial responsibilities, Lewis & Clark will create the first digitized archives of a major 20th-century poet. Digitization will offer an opportunity for general access to important drafts and annotated typescripts illustrating the entire working process of this prolific writer. It will also be possible to display a large selection of his photographs, the important visual dimension of Stafford’s creative life. Digital access to the extensive audio and video recordings will also preserve the voice of a 1960s pioneer of public poetry readings, and a particularly responsive interviewee.

The family tree. From left: Bret, Kit, Kim, Barbara, with William and Dorothy Stafford.   WilliamStafford(wearingtie),sisterPeg, and brother Bob.   William Stafford at Los Prietos camp, Santa Barbara, California, c. 1945.  

All these materials are ideally suited to digital presentation. At the same time, the process of digitization will preserve fragile manuscript and film materials, some of them 60 years old and in danger both of deterioration and of becoming inaccessible because of changes in technology.

As the key to the entire archives, the Special Collections staff (Doug Erickson, Jeremy Skinner, and Paul Merchant) will complete and entirely upgrade the partial Stafford bibliography by the late James Pirie, former Watzek librarian. They will convert it from a typed document to an online listing linked to texts and related visual and spoken materials.

All these materials–digital and tangible– will be invaluable for teachers of literature and of 20th-century history. Already at Lewis & Clark, William Stafford’s poem drafts have been studied in poetry classes at the Northwest Writing Institute and in the English department. In addition, the archives have provided work to a half dozen work-study students, giving them hands-on experience in the essentials of bibliographical and archival processes.

Finally, the papers reflect Stafford’s role in two literary developments we now take for granted: the public reading of poetry, and writing workshops. The William Stafford Archives are the fruits of a long, varied, and productive life, and it is important that the full documentation of that life become available to the widest possible audience.

Paul Merchant is archivist for the William Stafford Archives and has coedited two collections of William Stafford’s prose. He has also published four volumes of his own poetry, most recently Some Business of Affinity, which was a finalist for the 2008 Oregon Book Award in poetry.

1. “A Priest of the Imagination,” You Must Revise Your Life, pp. 89-90.

2. “Sidling around Student Poems,” The Answers Are Inside the Mountains, p. 59.

3. Aphorism from 24 January 1976: The ideal teacher— someone who can’t talk.

4. You Must Revise Your Life, p. 95; Crossing Unmarked Snow, pp. 122-125; The Answers Are Inside the Mountains, p. 68; Writing the Australian Crawl, pp. 104, 116. Aphorism from 5 November 1983: A realization: my slogan for writing— lower your standards and go on—applies to living, to getting old.

5. The archives include 20,000 pages of daily writings; over 70,000 pages of correspondence; more than 12,000 photographic negatives and prints; around a hundred audio and video recordings of more than two hundred readings and interviews; and a blueprint cabinet containing one hundred broadsides of Stafford poems, and almost as many representing other poets.

6. Stafford’s daughter Barbara tells a charming story of rising early as a youngster to share his loneliness. Without a word of discouragement, he got up earlier and earlier, till he had the time to himself again.

7. 28 April 1990: A new page always makes me feel optimistic. 3 November 1988: Like a frog at a moonrise, I am impressed but not reverent. 16 May 1953: Off a high place, it is courtesy to let others go first. 18 November 1988: Go in peace—but go. 26 December 1986: Dream: On a campus new to me I passed a lane that said, “Keep clear.” And went into a building and upstairs to my new office. Coming out I wasn’t sure of finding the exit and then wondered where my classroom was.

8. “For Our Esteemed Companions on the Way” (Crossing Unmarked Snow, p. 118): In that book you are about to write, how quiet it is now, how calm and sure. 12 January 1985: Writing my autobiography, I began not to like the way it looked, and I had an impulse to revise—not my writing, but my life: “You must revise your life!”

9. Writing the Australian Crawl (1978) and You Must Revise Your Life (1986), edited by William Stafford; Crossing Unmarked Snow (1998) and The Answers Are Inside the Mountains (2003), edited by Paul Merchant and Vincent Wixon.

10. In his handout “Assumptions about Literature Classes” he suggested: The course is easy, no hazards. Minimum involvement can be very light. At an extreme of involvement, the course could be a career.

11. William Stafford and Robert Bly: A Literary Friendship (video); The Methow River Poems (audiocassette); The Methow River Poems (video); The Last Reading, 13 August 1993 (compact disc); The Unknown Good in Our Enemies (compact disc); William Stafford Life and Poems (DVD containing “What the River Says” [1989], “The Life of the Poem” [1992], and “The Methow River Poems” [1997]).