William Edgar Stafford (January 17, 1914 – August 28, 1993) was an American poet and noted pacifist, as well as the father of the poet and essayist Kim Stafford. A long-time resident of Oregon, he and his writings are sometimes identified with the Pacific Northwest.
He was born in Hutchison, Kansas, the oldest of three children in a highly literate family. During the Depression, his family moved from town to town in any effort to find work for his father. Stafford helped contribute to family income by delivering newspapers, working in the sugar beet fields, raising vegetables, and working as an electrician’s mate.
He graduated from high school in the town of Liberal in 1933. After attending junior college, he received a B.A. from the University of Kansas in 1937. He was drafted into the United States armed forces in 1941, while pursuing his master’s degree at the University of Kansas, when he became a conscientious objector. As a registered pacifist, he performed alternative service from 1942 to 1946 in the civilian public service camps, which consisted of forestry and soil conservation work in Arkansas, California, and Illinois for $2.50 per week. While working in California in 1944, he met and he married Dororthy Hope Frantz with whom he later had four children.
He received his M.A. from the University of Kansas in 1947. His master’s thesis, the prose memoir Down In My Heart, was published in 1948 and described his experience in the forest service camps. That same year he moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College. In 1954, he received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.
Career as a Poet
One of the most striking features of his career is that he began publishing his poetry only later in life. His first major collection of poetry Travelling Through the Dark was published when he was forty-eight years old. It won the National Book Award the following year in 1963. The title poem is one of Stafford’s most well known works. It describes an experience of encountering a recently killed doe on a mountain road. Before pushing the doe off into the canyon, the poet discovers that the doe was pregnant and the fawn inside the doe is still alive.
Stafford was known for his quiet daily ritual of writing and his focus on the ordinary. The gentle quotidian style of his poetry has been compared to Robert Frost. His poems are typically short, focusing on the earthy, accessible details appropriate to a specific locality. In a 1971 interview, Stafford said:
“I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know, whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don’t have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along.”
He was also a close friend and colloborator with the poet Robert Bly.
Despite his late start, he was a frequent contributor to magazines and anthologies and eventually published fifty-seven volumes of poetry. James Dickey called Stafford one of those poets “who pour out rivers of ink, all on good poems.”
In 1970, he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position that is now known as Poet Laureate. In 1975, he was named Poet Laureate of Oregon. In 1980, he retired from Lewis and Clark College but continued to travel extensively and give public readings of his poetry. In 1992, he won the Western States Book Award for lifetime achievement in poetry.
He died in Lake Oswego, Oregon on August 28, 1993, having written a poem that morning containing the line “Be ready for what God sends.” His works are archived at the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis and Clark College.