William Stafford (1914-1993) was an earnest, perceptive, and often affecting American poet who filled his life and ours with poetry of challenge and consolation. The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems gathers unpublished works from his last year, including the poem he wrote the day he died, as well as an essential and wide-ranging selection of works from throughout his career. An editorial team including his son Kim Stafford, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, and the poet, translator, and author Robert Bly collaborated on shaping this book of Stafford's pioneering career in modern poetry. The poems in The Way It Is encompass Stafford's rugged domesticity, the political edge of his irony, and his brave starings-off into emptiness.
What we remember about a lyric poet is an extremely small fraction of the total work; time, aided by editors, creates a reputation out of about five great poems. In the case of William Stafford, The Way It Is has considerably expanded the field of candidates. His widely anthologized "Ceremony," "Thinking for Berky," and "Traveling through the Dark" are here, along with other contenders, including "Adults Only," which begins, "Animals own a fur world; / people own worlds that are variously, pleasingly bare." A writer of silence, loss, memory, and conviction, Stafford wrote a poem almost every morning, rising at four to eat toast and compose. This is a part of his myth that the Stafford industry--other poets, workshop leaders, old friends--agrees is admirable, the hard-working farmhand who beats the cows to the dairy barn. Stafford's poem-a-day habit certainly made things difficult for his literary executors Kim Stafford, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Robert Bly. Nonetheless, The Way It Is manages to encompass a pleasingly varied survey of Stafford's 35- book career, from his first collection, West of Your City, published in 1960, to the lyric written on the morning of his death on August 28, 1993. Not every poem is as perfect as "The Farm on the Great Plains"; some of them are embarrassingly sentimental, and the editors have curiously omitted a number of Stafford's better and more complicated poems in favor of more recent unpublished ones that he presumably didn't have time to revise. But all Stafford poems are worth reading at least once, and in the absence of a many-volumed Collected Poems, The Way It Is is a useful compromise, making available poems from his moral, religious, secular, maverick, political, and apolitical modes--all of them wise and at once exquisitely rhetorical and deeply imagistic. --Edward Skoog