William Stafford’s lifelong appointment with himself to write daily was integral to his poetics: the qualities of attention and receptivity, and the steely insistence on his own way of looking at things. As a conscientious objector during Word War II, Stafford was estranged from the majority of his countrymen. Living under strict rules in Civilian Public Service camps, he began writing before daylight, when he was answerable to no authority but his own and could do what he described as “maintenance work or repair work on [his] integrity.”
Another World Instead, organized chronologically and with an insightful introduction by the poet Fred Marchant, collects 176 of some 400 poems Stafford wrote between ages twenty-three and thirty-three. Most were written during Stafford’s four-year conscription, an experience that was, in Marchant’s words, “the crucible in which Stafford forged the basic elements of his distinctive poetic voice.” In this early work, one hears echoes of Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas, Wilfred Owen — poets the young poet was reading to teach himself the craft:
I looked for the town
The leaves were still;
the waves washed under the quay
I heard tomorrow
And felt today
And the weary wind over the sea.
In Stafford’s experiments with rhyme, meter, punctuation, and syntax, one sees, for instance, his early use of dashes, which in later work thwarts the forward motion of the sentence, enacting silence, swerve, and the necessary hesitation that comes from paying attention.
These early poems also demonstrate a restraint suggestive of the mature Stafford, but of an entirely different order, being of form rather than voice:
No matter, add a wrinkle, add a scowl:
I see the baby head behind it all;
And see bewilderment suppressed and hid
In gray temples upon the wisest head;
See comically the great men prance and caper,
And strike poses, and treble threats at neighbors.
(from “Subject and Background”)
While many of the poems are direct — and vulnerable — in their expression of thought and feeling, at the same time the rhyme and meter can make them feel stilted and overwrought — unlike the genial, enigmatic, wry, wise, and conversational voice beloved by many. In other ways the early poems presage the mature Stafford — the voice both of visionary and witness, the close observation of the natural world and human relationships, and the critical awareness of social and political realities. It is as if the fierceness in some of Stafford’s early work went underground, becoming in his later work more subtle and indirect and subversive.
Publishing a writer’s early unpublished work inevitably raises the question of whether the writer would approve. It is possible that Stafford, for whom the act of writing seemed more important than a particular poem, would not have objected. Another World Instead is intriguing for showing Stafford doing his own hard apprentice work both as a writer and as a human being writing to understand himself in unconscionable times. One must conclude that the simple, easy grace often associated with William Stafford’s mature poetry was not easily arrived at, nor, once achieved, was it actually simple.