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My World: Remembering a 'very human' William Stafford

Several years ago, we celebrated the centennial of the birth of William Stafford, arguably Oregon’s most highly honored and recognized poet. He died on Aug. 28, 1993. Thus it is appropriate each August to recall his life and work.

Although born in Kansas, Stafford lived and worked in Oregon for most of his adult life and is closely identified with our city of Lake Oswego and with the entire state of Oregon. He spent a number of years as the state’s designated Poet Laureate, in addition to being named the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position now designated as Poet Laureate of the United States.

No greater honor could be bestowed on an American poet than that.

Since his death, a persistent effort has been made to keep alive Stafford’s work and his vision of the art of poetry. The Friends of William Stafford was formed in our city — where he had lived and raised his family — and now sponsors poetry events around the literary world in his name throughout the year, but especially during January, the month of his birth.

Stafford was a prolific writer and poet. He left behind some 22,000 poems, as well as books of prose on the art of writing and on his thoughts as a conscientious objector during WW II. In fact, during his lifetime, he was occasionally criticized for being so prolific, the thought being that he must have been willing to accept results that were less than his best and that his standards were sometimes suspect.

Along with his well-known, and I think somewhat tongue-in-cheek, admonition to young writers — that if you were having “writer’s block,” you could solve it by simply lowering your standards — he was thought of at times to settle for too little. This may have occasionally obscured the best of his work, and quality could at times get lost in the volume of poems that he produced.

But Stafford was prolific because of his approach to the writing of poetry, not because of low standards. He woke early each morning and set about writing a poem. Whatever came to him, he welcomed.

Some of what came to him lead to poems of true and lasting greatness, poems that will remain stalwarts in American literature of the 20th century. Other times, they were perhaps something less. But still, each poem was accepted by him for what it offered and for the spirit in which it had occurred to him.

Stafford often seemed more interested in the process of creative writing than the result. Or so he said. It was the process of writing that seemed to lure and excite him.

Since Stafford’s death, there seems to have been a concerted effort, unfortunate in my view, to almost deify him, especially by folks who either didn’t know him or didn’t know him very well. He was a powerful influence on me in my early years as a poet, and I admired greatly both his work and his work ethic. As he once told me, our paths seemed to cross so frequently.

We were, on occasion, published in the same magazines and anthologies and, on at least one occasion, together, as a centerfold in a now-defunct monthly magazine — a display of photos of Oregon ghost towns coupled with poems by each of us. I took numerous workshops from Stafford over the years, and he was one of the judges for a contest I won in 1985 that sought a dedication poem for the statue Portlandia.

So I have nothing but goodwill toward him and appreciation for his work. However, he was not a “poetry god,” as some seem to make him out to be, which is why I am concerned that this trend to almost deify him at times ultimately does him and his body of work a disservice.

Stafford was above all, it seems to me, very human. He possessed the full range of human faults and frailties, as well as strengths. And he had an ego, however mild and unassuming he appeared in public.

He once told me he had approximately 250 poems circulating among editors of magazines at any one time. This was a poet who must have had editors all across the country and beyond seeking his work. However, when any poems were returned unused, he would immediately repackage them and send them out elsewhere. This was a monumental and time-consuming process. This was a man who I believe was driven by a substantial ego, an artist who vigorously sought public recognition for his creative efforts.

As a great admirer of Stafford and his work, I am encouraged by these acts that evidence his humanness. For me, they make his work even more meaningful and endearing. I want to know that he had an ego. I want to know that he could react in human terms. I want to know that he was not above the daily struggle. That he faced the same challenges I and every other writer or poet faces, and in the process, survives.

That’s the Stafford I remember each August. That’s the Stafford who still speaks so eloquently to me.

Lake Oswego resident Ronald Talney is a retired trial lawyer, writer and poet. In 1985, he wrote the official dedication poem for the statue Portlandia. Look for his column, “My World,” on the second Thursday of every month in The Review.