William Stafford


William Edgar Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, on January 17, 1914, to Ruby Mayher and Earl Ingersoll Stafford. The eldest of three children, Stafford grew up with an appreciation for nature and books. His father hunted and trapped and made the young William aware of what David Carpenter has called the "non-human Otherness in nature."

During the Depression the family moved from town to town as Earl Stafford searched for jobs. William helped to support the family also, by delivering papers, working in the sugar beet fields, raising vegetables, and as an electrician's mate. In 1933 Stafford graduated from high school in Liberal, Kansas, and attended Garden City and El Dorado junior colleges, graduating from the University of Kansas in 1937.

In 1939 Stafford enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to begin graduate studies in Economics, but by the next year he had returned to Kansas to earn his master's degree in English. When the United States entered World War II in 1941 Stafford was drafted before he could obtain his degree. As a registered pacifist, Stafford worked in camps and projects for conscientious objectors in Arkansas, California, and Illinois. He spent 1942 to1946 in these work camps and was paid $2.50 per month for assigned duties such as fire fighting, soil conservation, and building and maintaining roads and trails. In 1944 while in California Stafford met and married Dorothy Frantz, the daughter of a minister of the Church of the Brethren.

Following the war Stafford taught one year at a high school, spent a year working for relief organization Church World Service, and finished his master's degree at the University of Kansas in 1947. His master's thesis, memoirs of his time spent as a conscientious objector, was published as a book of prose, Down in My Heart (Brethren Publishing House, 1947). In 1948 Stafford accepted a teaching position at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where he remained until his retirement with the exception of earning his Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1954, teaching at different colleges and universities, and serving as Poetry Consultant for the Library of Congress from 1970 to 1971.

Stafford's first collection of poems, West of Your City, wasn't published until he was in his mid-forties. However, before his death in 1993 Stafford had published hundreds of poems, and purported to write at least one poem a day. His collection of poems Traveling Through the Dark won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1963. Stafford also received the Award in Literature by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a National Endowment for the Arts Senior Fellowship, and the Western States Book Award Lifetime Achievement in Poetry.

Stafford wrote "personal" poetry says Judith Kitchen, while Glen Love described Stafford's poetry as a "communicative process." Although his father appears more often in his poetry, Stafford has stated that his mother's presence and behavior influenced his writing. His poetry was strongly influenced by both the people and the plains region of his youth and young adulthood.

Works Cited

Carpenter, David A. William Stafford. Boise: Boise State University Western Writers Series 72, 1986.

Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999.

Love, Glen A. "William Stafford." In Fifty Western Writers, edited by Fred Erisman and Richard W. Etulain, Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982.


Works by William Stafford


West of Your City, Talisman Press, 1960.

Traveling through the Dark, Harper, 1962.

The Rescued Year, Harper, 1962.

Eleven Untitled Poems, Perishable Press, 1968.

Weather: Poems, Perishable Press, 1969.

Allegiances, Harper, 1970.

Temporary Facts, Duane Schneider Press, 1970.

(With Robert Bly and William Matthews) Poems for Tennessee, Tennessee Poetry Press, 1971.

In the Clock of Reason, Soft Press, 1973.

Someday, Maybe, Harper, 1973.

That Other Alone, Perishable Press, 1973.

Going Places: Poems, West Coast Poetry Review, 1974.

The Earth, Graywolf Press, 1974.

(With John Meade Haines) North by West, edited by Karen Sollid and John Sollid, Spring Rain Press, 1975.

(With son, Kim Robert Stafford) Braided Apart, Confluence, 1976.

I Would Also Like to Mention Aluminum: Poems and a Conversation, Slow Loris Press, 1976.

Late, Passing Prairie Farm: A Poem, Main Street Inc., 1976.

The Design on the Oriole, Night Heron Press, 1977.

Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems, Harper, 1977.

The Design on the Oriole, Night Heron Press, 1977.

Smoke's Way (chapbook), Graywolf Press, 1978.

All about Light, Croissant, 1978.

A Meeting with Disma Tumminello and William Stafford, edited by Nat Scammacca, Cross-Cultural Communications, 1978.

Passing a Creche, Sea Pen Press, 1978.

Tuft by Puff, Perishable Press, 1978.

Two about Music, Sceptre Press, 1978.

Tuned in Late One Night, The Deerfield Press, 1978, The Gallery Press, 1978.

The Quiet of the Land, Nadja Press, 1979.

Around You, Your Horse & A Catechism, Sceptre Press, 1979.

Absolution, Martin Booth, 1980.

Things That Happen When There Aren't Any People, BOA Editions, 1980.

Passwords, Sea Pen Press, 1980.

Wyoming Circuit, Tideline Press, 1980.

Sometimes Like a Legend: Puget Sound Country, Copper Canyon Press, 1981.

A Glass Face in the Rain: New Poems, Harper, 1982.

Roving across Fields: A Conversation and Uncollected Poems 1942-1982, edited by Thom Tammaro, Barnwood, 1983.

Smoke's Way: Poems, Graywolf, 1983.

(With Marvin Bell) Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry, David Godine, 1983.

Listening Deep: Poems (chapbook), Penmaen Press, 1984.

(With others) Stanza Press, Stanza Press, 1984.

Stories and Storms and Strangers, Honeybrook Press, 1984.

Wyoming, Ampersand Press, Roger Williams College, 1985.

Brother Wind, Honeybrook Press, 1986.

An Oregon Message, Harper 1987.

You and Some Other Characters, Honeybrook Press, 1987.

(With Marvin Bell) Annie-Over, Honeybrook Press, 1988.

Writing the World, Alembic Press, 1988.

A Scripture of Leaves, Brethren Press, 1989.

Fin, Feather, Fur, Honeybrook Press, 1989.

Kansas Poems of William Stafford, edited by Denise Low, Woodley Press, 1990.

How to Hold Your Arms When It Rains, Confluence Press, 1991.

Passwords, HarperPerennial, 1991.

The Long Sigh the Wind Makes, Adrienne Lee Press, 1991.

History is Loose Again, Honeybrook Press, 1991.

The Animal That Drank Up Sound (a children's book, illustrated by Debra Frasier), Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992.

Seeking the Way (with illuminations by Robert Johnson), Melia Press, 1992.

My Name is William Tell, Confluence Press, 1992.

Holding Onto the Grass, Honeybrook Press, 1992, reprinted, Weatherlight Press, 1994.

Who Are You Really Wanderer?, Honeybrook Press, 1993.

The Darkness Around Us Is Deep: Selected Poems of William Stafford, edited and with an introduction by Robert Bly, HarperPerennial, 1993.

Learning to Live in the World: Earth Poems by William Stafford, Harcourt, Brace, & Compnay, 1994.

The Methow River Poems, Confluence Press, 1995.

Even In Quiet Places, Confluence Press, 1996.

The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, introduction by Naomi Shihab Nye, Graywolf Press, 1998.


Down in My Heart (based on his experiences as a conscientious objector), Brethren Publishing House, 1947, reprinted, 1971, 2nd edition, Bench Press, 1985.

Friends to this Ground: A Statement for Readers, Teachers, and Writers of Literature, National Council of Teachers of English, 1967.

Leftovers, A Care Package: Two Lectures, Library of Congress, 1973.

Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation, edited by Donald Hall, University of Michigan Press, 1978.

You Must Revise Your Life, University of Michigan Press, 1986.

Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer's Vocation, edited by Paul Merchant and Vincent Wixon, University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Bibliography information taken from:

Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999.

Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1988. 438-446.


Critical Annotated Bibliography about William Stafford's Work


  • Andrews, Tom, ed. On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993.

    This book contains reviews of fourteen of Stafford's collections, twelve general essays, eleven essays on selected poems or articles, and an extensive bibliography. In the introduction Andrews states that he wanted to include some essays that reflect on the debates about Stafford's work and essays that not only discuss the value of Stafford's work, but also question it (vii). This book would be good for the reader who wants a selection of critical responses on Stafford's work without having to search through literary journals.
  • Carpenter, David A. William Stafford. Boise: Boise State University Western Writers Series, no. 72, 1986.

    Carpenter includes some biographical information as well as quotes from Stafford and others concerning his life and work. Mostly Carpenter discusses the presence of nature in Stafford's work, including how his time spent in the Midwest influenced his poetry, and also discusses some of the criticism available on Stafford at the time this piece was published. Overall a great piece to help readers understand and appreciate Stafford's poetry.
  • Holden, Jonathan. The Mark to Turn: A Reading of William Stafford's Poetry. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.

    This book discusses the poems of William Stafford in West of Your City (1960) and in four major poetry collections published by Harper & Row, Traveling through the Dark (1962), The Rescued Year (1966), Allegiances (1970), and Someday Maybe (1973). It focuses on these works as a whole trying to discern the major thematic connections.
  • Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999.

    Kitchen has designed a comprehensive book for both beginning readers of William Stafford and those already familiar with his work. The book is divided into chapters, starting with some biographical information, an overview of Stafford's work, and an introduction to some of the criticism available. Next, Kitchen explores Stafford's major works, outlining common themes and dissecting specific poems. The final two chapters are devoted to Stafford's poetic technique and an introduction to Stafford's own views on poetry. This book is good if you want specific information on one of Stafford's major collections of poetry or if you want an overview of his central themes. The information contained here is accessible, and with its extensive bibliography it is a good jumping off point to find more information on Stafford.
  • Lensing, George S. and Robert Moran. Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

    The piece on William Stafford in this book describes his works in terms of a style of poetry called Emotive Imagination. In brief, the Emotive Imagination style revolves around the imagery of the poem. While a reader of Stafford's poetry may not by concerned with how it relates to Emotive Imagination the section on Stafford in this book discusses important themes in his poetry. The piece first describes how Stafford's poetry fits Emotive Imagination. It then goes on to look at how Stafford's poetry looks back on his Kansas childhood, and how the ideals instilled in that world compare to modern society; for example: the wilderness of that world versus the technology of the modern world.
  • Love, Glen A. "William Stafford." In Fifty Western Writers, edited by Fred Erisman & Richard W. Etulain. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1982.

    This piece is separated into three sections. The first gives a brief biography. The second reviews the major themes in Stafford's work including the idea of the "communicative process" (455), and the natural world. The third section gives a survey of the criticism of Stafford's work. A bibliography is also included.
  • Stitt, Peter. The World's Hieroglyphic Beauty Five American Poets. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985.

    Stitt's book pairs an essay with an interview on five American poets. In his piece on Stafford, "William Stafford's Wilderness Quest," Stitt explores Stafford's writing process and his inclusion of nature and how these two areas affect Stafford's poetry. The nature theme in Stafford's poetry comprises the greater part of Stitt's essay. He claims that it is important because it is able to appear in different ways. The landscape of the poem is often an important factor, but nature can also be related to death, religion, time, and the home. This essay is helpful in exploring how a sense of place influences Stafford's work. The interview covers different topics from Stafford's past and how it influenced his work, to his views on contemporary poetry his own and others.

Selected Articles

  • Hugo, Richard. "Problems with Landscape in Early Stafford Poems." Kansas Quarterly 2.2 (Spring 1970): 33-38.

    This piece describes Stafford as being a landscape poet, one "who uses places and experiences in those places as starting points for poems" (33). The title "problem" is the poet's having to emotionally own the landscape he/she writes about. Hugo writes about some of Stafford's poems concerning the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest.
  • Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1988. 438-46.

    This piece contains some personal information on Stafford as well as an extensive bibliography of his works and critical studies. It also contains some critical information on Stafford's poetry and an interview discussing his writing.


  • William Stafford: What the River Says. A video by Vincent Wixon and Michael Markee, TTTD Productions, Ashland, OR. 29 min.

    A documentary with comments by William Stafford, and statements by other poets. This also contains a viewer's guide with an introduction, the text of seven poems, and discussion questions.
  • William Stafford: The Life of the Poem. A video by Vincent Wixon and Michael Markee, TTTD Productions, Ashland, OR. 29 min.

    This video provides a look into Stafford's techniques while writing with comments by him. It follows the writing process for three poems, and also contains a viewer's guide.
  • William Stafford: The Methow River Poems. A video by Vincent Wixon and Michael Markee, TTTD Productions, Ashland OR. 11 min.

    Six of Stafford's poems used as roadside signs along the North Cascade Highway read by Garrison Keillor, Naomi Shihab Nye, and one by William Stafford.
  • William Stafford and Robert Bly: A Literary Friendship. Directed by Haydn Reiss. Films for Humanities & Sciences, Princeton, NJ. Originally shown on PBS, sponsored by the Witter Brynner Foundation.

    An informal interview by Bly of Stafford with their conversations, anecdotes, and a session of the two men teaching together. Both poets read some of their own poetry.