The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937–1947
Edited, with introduction, by Fred Marchant
Graywolf Press, 2008
What does it mean to be a conscientious objector during a war that nearly all one’s fellow citizens favor? What does it mean to take such a stance at the same time that one is getting started as a poet? How does such an experience shape the poetry, and how does the poetry articulate the inner life of a person in such a situation?
Answers to such questions are not easy to come by. Most readers of William Stafford’s poetry know that he was a CO during World War II. Most know that he spent the war years in the Civilian Public Service Program, doing alternative service that consisted of forestry and soil-conservation projects. Some may have read Down in My Heart (1947), Stafford’s prose memoir about his time in the CPS program. It details the lives of men who were opposed to war, but were essentially conscripted into a program governed by the Selective Service System. As important as Down in My Heart is, it is not, however, a portrait of the artist as a young man. While Stafford uses poems he wrote in that era as epigraphs for several of his chapters in the memoir, there is very little in the book about his coming of age as a writer. Down in My Heart focuses on the ethical dilemmas these men often faced by virtue of their convictions, and if anything, the seven poems in the memoir are supplemental to those stories. In addition to those in the memoir, there are only nine other poems from those years that are readily available to contemporary readers. Three are collected in The Way It Is (1998), Stafford’s posthumously published new and selected poems. Two can be found in Early Morning (2002), Kim Stafford’s memoir about his father, and another two are collected in Every War Has Two Losers (2003), an anthology of Stafford’s writings on war and peace, edited by Kim Stafford. The remaining two poems are in An Anthology of Northwest Writing: 1900-1950 (first published in 1979, and reprinted in 2003).
These sixteen poems, however, are only a small fraction of the writing Stafford did while in the CPS program and the years shortly after his discharge. The William Stafford Archives in Portland, Oregon contains approximately four hundred poems composed between 1937 and 1947. Not all of them, of course, are of equal worth, and some are clearly in the spirit of daily note-taking and ongoing practice. A surprising number of these poems, however, are fully realized, utterly fascinating, but unavailable in print. The present volume collects 176 poems from Stafford’s first four hundred, including those that are still in print. The goal has been to assemble a representative and accurate record of Stafford’s best work from his first decade of writing. An even more significant goal is to allow these poems to tell the developmental story that they embody. When West of Your City, Stafford’s first book of poetry, was published in 1960, the poet was forty-six years old. To many Stafford seemed to spring full-grown onto the American literary scene, but that accomplished style did have a background story. If Stafford didn’t exactly have an apprenticeship, in the strict sense of that word, he nonetheless had had a long period of getting started as a writer. He had been writing poems for over twenty years before his first book was published. The central event of his life in the first of those two decades was his service in the CPS program. Despite their hardships, those four years were their own blessing in disguise. They were the crucible in which Stafford forged the basic elements of his distinctive poetic voice.
The poems that follow show us Stafford seeking to understand the full meaning involved in his taking a stance against war. This was deep, inner-life work, and was in its way as demanding as his daily physical labor. In May of 1942, Stafford was in the CPS work camp in Los Prietos, California, in the mountains above Santa Barbara. He had been in the system only a few months, but they were enough to make him feel as if he was living as an exile within his own country. In that frame of mind, Stafford wrote a poem titled “Exile,” containing this quatrain:
I stand and dream another world instead,
where easy wind flows river over head,
and quail call outdoor reverence through the day,
and men look far to cove and sheen blue bay.
The stateliness of the first line shows his devotion to the ceremonial quality of iambic pentameter, but the whole stanza is awkward, especially the last line. One wonders here what Stafford means. Is it that he wishes he were anywhere else but here? Is this a vain and idle dream?
Six months later, while still working at the same camp, Stafford revisits the question in another, far more complex and accomplished poem, “CO’s Work on Mountain Road,” quoted here in full:
Like bay trees on the edge of La Cumbre Peak,
liking with wistful scent the swooping world below,
we few dreamers
on the edge of new savage years, jagged beyond sight,
audaciously lean, suspiring a few old messages from
the old earth still under our trustful feet.
The pines have left us and are marching;
the sycamores fly angry tints;
the oaks present overworked postures, extreme.
Who cares in a big country for a few egret trees,
on one cliff, on an edge, leaning far out,
on a scent like a memory?
Who would care in such a big country, in a world at war, about a few people who have put themselves so far out on the margins of society? Why should anyone care? And yet the poem proposes that, like the bay trees, these COs and their work serve a purpose nonetheless. The poem implies their work offers the angry world below something precious and needed. Like these trees, the COs breathe a sweetness over landscape. These few dreamers working on the road cling to the ancient injunction: thou shalt not kill. To keep that idea or faith alive is the real work of COs up there in the mountains. This is the fuller version of the dream of another world instead.
COs are not the only dreamers in this poem. The poet too dreams of another world instead. If Stafford in his first few months in the CPS program wondered what it meant to be a conscientious objector, he also might have wondered what good it was to write poetry. Seamus Heaney, in The Redress of Poetry, for example, examines the question when he analyzes the concept of the “poetry of witness.” Heaney argues that a poem may bear witness in a variety of ways, and that the act of witnessing can be more complex than a simple eyewitness account. The pressure of reality may prompt a poet to imagine a world in which there is “a glimpsed alternative” to what is often the savagery of the real. He observes that a poem of witness might reveal “a potential that is denied or constantly threatened.” Heaney also notes that a poem might place in the scales a “counter-reality,” an image that allows us to see better both what is, and what is missing from it. For Heaney the “redress” of poetry is its capacity to amplify and extend our conception of existence. To do this work is less an idle dream and more of an effort to help forge, as Joyce says, the uncreated conscience of a people. On that mountain road Stafford forged images that bore witness to and affirmed the worth of his the two fundamental facts of his life: his pacifist’s stance and his writing of poetry. For him the two were then and would remain inseparable for the rest of his life.
Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, on January 17, 1914. The oldest of three children, he came of age during the Great Depression, the family moving from town to town as his father tried to secure work during the hard times. The family’s religious background was a mainstream Protestantism. Stafford recalled going regularly to various Sunday schools, though the family had no firm denominational affiliation. In Kansas of that era, Stafford may have had some exposure to Mennonites and members of other historic peace churches. He also may have gathered some skepticism from his family’s common-sense distrust of war-mongering political leaders. His family, however, was not a pacifist family. Stafford’s brother Bob, for instance, became a bomber pilot during World War II, and the family supported both young men. Moreover, Bob and Bill seemed genuinely concerned about the well-being of each throughout the war years despite their divergent paths. In short, what Stafford seems to have absorbed from his family background was a sturdy, almost Emersonian self-reliance.
One sign of this self-reliance is that while an undergraduate at the University of Kansas in the late 1930s, Stafford became a member of The Fellowship of Reconciliation. This pacifist organization, begun in England prior to World War I, had a thriving American branch at the university. Though originally organized by Christians, the Fellowship was ecumenical, committed to social justice, and to non-violence as a response to conflict. During World War I, it supported conscientious objectors in all the warring countries. In the United States, it not only worked for legal recognition of CO rights, it also helped organize the National Civil Liberties Bureau, which later became the American Civil Liberties Union. Peaceful reconciliation of conflict seems to have emerged as Stafford’s core ethical belief during his college years. In one of his prose writings there is a brief account of his taking part in a non-violent demonstration to desegregate the university’s cafeteria. His participation in that demonstration might well be representative of his overall frame of mind in response to Depression-era America. Stafford began his university studies as an economics major, but graduated with a degree in English, and later began work on a Master’s Degree, planning on teaching.
In the fall of 1941, as war loomed, Stafford applied to his draft board for conscientious objector status. At his hearing, he was asked how he came by his objection to war. The questioner was the head of Stafford’s draft board, but he also had been one of Stafford’s Sunday school teachers. Stafford replied that he had come to his stance because people such as his questioner had taught him not to kill. It was a lesson, he said, “I never forgot.” He was telling the truth. “White Pigeons,” written in 1937, was his first poem, as indicated by Stafford’s own notation on the typescript. In this piece a boy in a desolate landscape is startled by a strange sound in the sky above. We learn that the boy’s white pigeons are returning to him. Whatever the exact kind of pigeons these are, they cannot help but evoke the doves that represent peace. The situation in the poem seems surrounded by important questions. Is the sound in the air only the sound of the pigeons? Have they been frightened by the screeching of a bird of prey? The answers are not evident, but the poem is colored by feelings of dread and loneliness, the bird-sounds presenting what the young poet calls the “haunting cry of aching land.”
Another poem that reflected the sincerity and self-reliance involved in his stance was “From the Sound of Peace.” This was composed in the fall of 1941, around the time when Stafford made his claim for CO status to his draft board. In this poem the speaker also hears a sound high in the air, and this poem too is filled with dread. What this speaker hears is a prophetic voice calling us all back from the brink of war. The speaker in this poem would like nothing better than to preserve some shred of peace in the face of an imminent onslaught. He damns those who follow the lying voices calling for war. One can easily imagine a poem like this being offered as evidence that he had never forgotten that first lesson about not killing. He was granted CO status, and a few months later, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Stafford’s draft notice arrived. In January 1942 Stafford said goodbye to his family and left for a Civilian Public Service work camp in Magnolia, Arkansas. He would serve in the program for four full years, and would be discharged six months after the war ended.
The Civilian Public Service program was a creation of The Selective Service Act of 1940. The CPS provision of the legislation was in no small part due to a collaborative effort among the historic peace churches, including the Friends, the Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren. The churches were responding to the brutal difficulties COs faced during World War I, both within the military and within federal prisons. Given the social turbulence of the Depression era, these church officials expected a wave of war resisters should another world war break out. The U.S. government also anticipated resistance, and the Selective Service System, led by General Lewis B. Hershey, worked with the peace churches to design an alternative service program. Thus was born a program where COs could do “work of national importance” “under civilian direction.” The program’s enabling legislation had specified that the program would be under civilian control, but after Pearl Harbor, the Selective Service claimed absolute authority over the program, and given the wartime atmosphere, there was no practical way for the peace churches to challenge the claim. The Selective Service, with the blessing of President Roosevelt, seemed to view the conscientious objector as a variety of draftee and the peace churches as a source of funding and administrative services for the camps.
The CPS program consisted of approximately one hundred and fifty work camps scattered across the country. The men would be paid from funds raised by those churches, and thus the program was designed to cost the government little or no money. That was one of the selling points in the creation of the program. Some 34 million men registered for the draft during World War II. Approximately 72,000 applied for CO status. A third of those failed the physical and were exempted from service. Another third accepted non-combatant status within the military, often serving as medics. Roughly 6,000 men did not cooperate with the draft at all, and thus were arrested, tried, and sentenced to jail terms of varying lengths. Approximately 12,000 conscientious objectors declared themselves unwilling to serve in the military in a non-combatant role, but were willing to do alternative service in the CPS program.
Stafford was one of these men. As he waited for the train to take him to Magnolia, he might have imagined what his immediate future would be like from the list of items he had been instructed to bring with him: denim work clothes, sturdy boots, long underwear, bed linens, shoe polish, and a mirror. It would be demanding, physical work in the wilderness. He and others like him would live in barracks and buildings built for the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. It might have been a little reassuring for him to note that “literature supplies” and “stationery and stamps” were on his list of things to bring as well. Even so, aside from the fact that the COs of Civilian Public Service were so small a number, Stafford might easily have felt as if he was heading off to a pacifist’s boot camp.
All COs were to stay in the CPS program for the duration of the war. Leaves had to be authorized. To go AWOL was a criminal violation. The pay was $2.50 per month, far less than the lowest private in any service. Day to day life in the camps was to be as much like garrison army life as possible. Work-reports and disciplinary actions went up a chain of command, and weekend passes and the occasional furloughs were tightly regulated. If one overstayed a pass or leave, one was AWOL; if one deliberately left and did not intend to return, he was in effect a deserter and could be arrested by the FBI. The regimentation and the miserable pay after a while seemed to resemble something more or less akin to forced labor, designed to keep COs out of sight and out of mind. As the war went on, more and more CPS men did take a principled stance against the program and deserted as an act of civil disobedience. Those who stayed often had to endure the havoc their CPS work wreaked upon their families. Making pennies per day, they had to rely on donations from the peace churches to support wives and children back home. Especially onerous was the indeterminate length of the “sentence” these men felt had been imposed upon them. Sometimes, a CO might give up and enlist in the army just to get a decent paycheck to send some money back to loved ones. And those who could put up with the financial and physical hardships often found themselves wondering whether they were being altogether too compliant with a war machine they had opposed.
The world meanwhile kept spiraling in a lethal nightmare. In the month that Stafford arrived at Magnolia, the Nazi leadership gathered at Wannsee to discuss the “final solution” of the “Jewish question.” A year later, while Stafford was at the Los Prietos camp, the Allied leadership met at Casablanca to agree on area bombing of cities, leading to massive civilian casualties in Berlin, Dresden, Tokyo, and eventually in the use of the atom bomb in Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. One cannot be sure exactly how much news of the war reached the CPS camps in the wilderness, but every CPS member recounts that the off-hours were usually times of intense discussion, study, and artistic expression. In many camps a portion of the barracks would be set off as a library. Books would be pooled, and those who had some special expertise would lead discussion groups. Musicians would practice, and writers would write. There would be readings and dramatic presentations. Descriptions of the off-hours at these CPS camps make them sound more than a little like free universities rather than work camps. It was in the spirit of conscientious objection—whether on philosophical or religious grounds—that the important, difficult questions would come under intense and probing scrutiny.
For Stafford, the most valuable off-hours in the day were early morning. Rising at 4:30, he had a couple of hours before breakfast and the workday began. The Selective Service System did not own those early mornings, and those were the hours when he wrote. In an autobiographical essay written later in life and included in You Must Revise Your Life (1986), Stafford explained that his life as a writer came to him as two parts, “like two rivers that blend.” The first consisted of times, places, events, and people. The other, he said, was the mysterious “flow of my inner life.” Later in the same essay he recalled that in the camps “the two parts of my life that blended or clashed in making my writing were in constant alertness.” Moreover he said that his daily writing early in the morning was “maintenance work or repair work on my integrity.” Thus began his lifelong habit of rising early and writing before the day began for everyone else. There is probably no more important fact about Stafford’s writing life than this daily habit, and one cannot help but imagine that he often remembered when and where that habit had begun.
It is revealing that Stafford says his writing was maintenance and repair work on his integrity. The prison-like regimentation of life must have felt like an assault on his integrity. Even his cooperation with the authorities might have felt that way as well. To write in the free hours of the early morning might have been his best antidote to a pervasive sense of violation and vulnerability. In such a context the freedom to experiement in writing a poem would then be more than a technical matter. Trying out free verse or the many possibilities of indentations might have been deeply restorative. The poems of those years tell us he experimented with capitalization, punctuation and syntax, with colloquial diction, with full rhymes, slant-rhymes and none. Most of the characteristic elements of his style were discovered or invented—sometimes very tentatively—in the poems of these years. There are, however, surprising dimensions as well. These often are tonal or attitudinal gestures. Sometimes he is wickedly sarcastic, recoiling from specious piety, whatever its source, including overly pious pacifists and reformers. Other times he is so deeply alienated that it seems fair to say that Stafford’s early poems were an ongoing investigation into loneliness. At the same time Stafford is acutely aware of the benefits of being part of a beloved community, being a “saint of the kingdom, “ as the COs have jokingly sometimes called themselves. In these poems the loneliness predominates, but the communitas among his fellow COs would remain for Stafford a benchmark of human possibility.
Above all, time and time again the work of Stafford’s first decade of poetry enacts his visceral recoil from the pervasive violence of world war. One of the best examples is a poem he wrote on August 8, 1945, in between the bombing of Hiroshima and that of Nagasaki. “The Sound: Summer, 1945,” quoted here in its entirety:
Not a loud sound, the buzz of the rattlesnake.
But urgent. Making the heart pound a loud drum.
Somewhere in dead weeds by a dry lake
On cracked earth flat in the sun.
The living thing left raises the fanged head,
Tormented and nagged by the drouth,
And stares past a planet that’s dead,
With anger and death in its mouth.
When this poem was written, Stafford was serving in the administrative headquarters of the Church of the Brethren, in Elgin, Illinois, having been transferred there in the winter of 1945. He was no longer laboring in the mountains fighting forest fires and opening roads, but doing administrative work in the education programs for the Brethren CPS camps. No doubt he had seen enough newspaper photographs of the smoke from bombs to think the atomic bomb would have smoke that rose like a snake from its target. Still, one cannot help but marvel at Stafford’s instinctive recognition that the rising “mushroom cloud” was the embodiment of an evil that threatened the whole planet. There is palpable revulsion, and no small of amount of anger and fear, emotions one might not often associate with Stafford’s poetry. Nevertheless what is true of this poem points in the direction of the most fundamental and original element of his art.
A first principle: there is no essentially pacifist poetic. No line-break, no figure of speech, no cadence is by its very nature pacifistic. A second principle: a pacifist poet cannot help but make aesthetic decisions that reflect or embody a core set of beliefs. To illustrate, let us reconsider “White Pigeons,” Stafford’s first poem, and this time take a close look at one of the oddities in the poem: its use of the dash. Four lines of the opening stanza’s seven lines end on a dash. The second stanza is slightly longer, and no dashes interrupt the flow. The concluding stanza, however, repeats the first, including its four dashes in seven lines. Stafford’s reliance on the em-dash (i.e. not the hyphen) is not in any way unique to this poem. The posthumous new and selected poems of The Way It Is are certainly representative of Stafford’s life’s work. It turns out that nearly half of them have sentences that are interrupted by dashes. For Stafford it is one the most versatile elements of punctuation that exists: he uses it to indicate asides, explanations, pauses, hesitations, and sudden shifts in thought. It is a device that alters not only the forward thrust of syntax, but also the temporal dimension of the poem. It creates silences as much as it creates interruptions and delays. It dramatizes the mind lingering, where the speaker is momentarily open to something that is imminent but not yet fully articulate. It is no wonder then that Stafford should have said, as he did in an interview included in Writing the Australian Crawl (1978), that there was no American writer then at work who was greater than Emily Dickinson. She and Stafford were both virtuosos of the dash.
The most famous dashes in Stafford’s work occur in the oft-anthologized “Traveling through the Dark.” The dead doe encountered on a wilderness road at night proves to have a fetus still alive inside. What is he supposed to do? Stafford tells us:
I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
These dashes surround and enable the speaker’s mindful moment. They are the sign and symbol of his swerving from the forward, inevitable thrust of thought and logic. In this regard one is reminded of another pacifist writer during World War II, Simone Weil. In “The Iliad,or the Poem of Force,” an essay written during the first year of World War II, Weil celebrates the virtues of hesitation, pausing, swerving. Examining several blood-stained scenes in the poem, she notes that those who conquer and kill—be they Greek or Trojan—are inexorable. No one imposes the slightest halt in what they are doing. No one, she writes, insists on “that interval of hesitation, wherein lies all our consideration for our brothers in humanity.” For Stafford, the dash—a mute little shred of punctuation—was the syntactical device that signaled the speaker was, as he said in his most well-known poem, thinking hard for us all.
Stafford’s dashes are but one device by which his poetry creates the interval of hesitation. There are parentheses and ellipsis points that work the same as well. But it is not always a matter of punctuation. Or rather the punctuation is but a sign of what Stafford considers a fundamental human act of attentiveness: listening. Throughout the poems selected for The Way It Is there are listeners listening and bearing witness to that topic as Stafford’s abiding concern. It is central to the early work as well. Throughout the poems of his first decade Stafford listens to sounds in the air, to voices in the night, to winds, to trees, to the kind of men who lecture or pronounce, and to the kind who love to sing. In 1946 Stafford composed “Deep Listening,” a philosophical poem in which he tries to pinpoint with metaphor what exactly listening means for him. First the speaker says deep listening is like a taut wire humming before it snaps; then he says it is like a creaking chain about to break. Then the poem shifts to a surprisingly active set of images:
I watch an oak whose top
has forgotten the ground under the leaves.
At the final swing of the axe
the high branches glisten,
whisper, then lean
with surging recognition
to an old friend.
I turn to you
To think that listening to another deeply is akin to an oak being felled suggests just how seriously Stafford views the question. To listen is like returning to the ground of one’s own being. The tree falls, and dies, and the kind of listening Stafford describes here implies the death of the ego. His kind of active listening means giving oneself over fully to another. Hearing has a somewhat passive connotation; deep listening, as Stafford presents it, is a profoundly active turning toward. It is a “listing,” that leaning, that cocking of the ear, that pause in which one allows for authentic consideration of the other. It is a paradigm of mindful human connectedness, and it is the archetypal act underlying Stafford’s poetry.
In his first decade of writing, and in particular in the four years he spent in the CPS program, William Stafford discovered that writing poetry was for him an act of deep listening. He was not only listening to the voices in his world. He was also listening inwardly, to signals emanating from the deepest levels of his own being. One name for that would be a conscience. One might think conscience is a purely individual matter. Yet the structure of the word tells us differently. Conscience is a “knowing-with.” It acknowledges the importance of the other. It proposes that we find or create a sense of right relation with one another, with the world around us, and with ourselves. How can one know what those right relations are? Stafford might answer by saying one has to learn how to listen deeply. In the poems he wrote between 1937 and 1947, we witness Stafford learning how to do just that. In later years he would write a poem about when he first met his muse. When she appeared the ceiling of his house arched, the sunlight bent, and her voice “belled forth”:
“I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.”
Stafford ends this poem by saying that then he took her hand. He was listening to what she had to say, listening deeply.