Bearing False Witness

Were William Stafford’s early poems better left unpublished?

By Eric Ormsby
Poetry Foundation Media Services

When William Stafford (1914-93) was given the National Book Award for poetry, for his 1962 collection Traveling Through the Dark, the judges said of his poems that “their music knows the value of silence.” This seems a dubious tribute. Would a composer be acclaimed for his mastery of rests? In fact, though Stafford often wrote about silence — and made grand claims for it — he was an unusually chatty poet. Apart from a handful of surprising poems, in which he seemed overtaken by the listening stillness of the natural world, Stafford tended to colonize every pause. He summoned silence as a sort of proscenium, not only for the “cry of an owl” or “the yelps of geese,” but for his own muted ruminations. He wanted to create, as he put it, “echoes realer / than originals.” Unfortunately, echoes have a nasty way of fading.

Stafford had a small but genuine poetic gift and he worked hard to develop it. How hard can now be seen in Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937-1947 (Graywolf Press, 128 pages, $26), edited and with an introduction by Fred Marchant. During that decade Stafford composed some 400 poems, 176 of which are included in Mr. Marchant’s selection. Many of these were written when the poet, a conscientious objector, was interned for four years during World War II at a Civilian Public Service Camp in California. Mr. Marchant makes much of this fact in his introduction. Indeed, it is Stafford’s opposition to war which appears to provide a justification for the volume. It is certainly not the poems.

Among many other misleading statements, Mr. Marchant invokes the grandiose notion of the “poetry of witness” to characterize Stafford’s early scribbles. The only thing these wartime efforts bear witness to is how clumsy and naive the young poet was. Lines like “a wispy tapestry of wondering” alternate with self-righteous rants; during a pro-war sermon, Stafford describes himself as “holding my nose in the pews.” As if the horrors of war weren’t enough, Stafford thunders against lesser evils, such as the dread menace of cellophane; one shudders to think what fiery outrage plastic wrap might have inspired. Of course, this is a young man’s verse, more concerned with posturing than poetry, and Stafford himself never saw fit to publish it. To publish it now, even at a time of widespread anti-war sentiment, does no service to his memory.

In his introduction Mr. Marchant uses Stafford’s youthful doggerel as a platform for sophistries of every sort. Though the poet was set to work in the camp on various “forestry and soil-conservation projects,” the “prison-like regimentation of life” there constituted “an assault on his integrity.” Mr. Marchant refers to Stafford as an “internal exile,” an allusion to the infamous camps of the Soviet Gulag. But the camp where he was interned was located in the mountains above Santa Barbara — not exactly Siberia. And if Stafford was an “exile,” it was by free choice and honorable conviction. In any case, forced dabbling in soil conservation, even under rough conditions, doesn’t sound unduly oppressive, especially when compared with conditions at Iwo Jima or the beaches of Normandy.

Still worse is Mr. Marchant’s dishonest tendency to equate Allied and Nazi intentions in the war. He goes so far as to state that the infamous Wannsee Conference, at which the “final solution” was hatched, was morally equivalent to the Allied decision to bomb Dresden and Tokyo, without noting that the former was an act of cold, calculated evil while the latter was a dreadful, but unavoidable, response to that evil. Nor does Mr. Marchant bother to point out that the American provision of conscientious objector status was a liberal and humane measure; it wasn’t available to German soldiers in the Wehrmacht.

The same penchant for oversimplification mars much of Stafford’s verse from beginning to end. In a 1962 poem he could write, with barely suppressed hysteria, “we live in an occupied country, misunderstood.” But the misunderstanding — like his wartime internment — was mostly of his own making. As he wrote of a character in another poem from the ’60s, “he uses / the haze as authentic.” The same might be said of Stafford, too.

When the haze lifted he could write memorably. In “Traveling Through the Dark,” the title poem of his best book, he showed what he could do when he set aside the specious generalization for the unique and unrepeatable instance. In this little poem, he describes finding a deer killed by the side of the road and discovering, when he drags her body to the shoulder, that

her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.

The poem turns on the long hesitation which follows. The poet says, “I could hear the wilderness listen.” How do you hear a wilderness — or anything else — “listen”? But we listen, too, at this moment, like that fawn waiting for the sound of its mother’s heartbeat. Here Stafford let silence itself do the talking and this gives his last two lines their harsh but sorrowful force.

I thought hard for us all — my only swerving — ,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

Eric Ormsby’s work regularly appears in The Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, The Paris Review, and other publications. This article first appeared in The New York Sun, where he writes the weekly “Readings” column.

© 2008 by Eric Ormsby. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at


~ by ericedits on August 5, 2008.

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