William Stafford: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

We will look at the life and poems of William E. Stafford, a prolific writer whose readable poems engaged audiences for five decades and earned awards and honors.

Education, War, Family Life, and Work

William Edgar Stafford was born in Kansas on January 17, 1914. The oldest of three children, he grew up with a fondness for nature and a love of books. He credits his father for fostering an appreciation of the natural world. During the depression his family moved around a lot and William worked at many jobs. Even so, he was able to graduate high school and begin college. William graduated from the University of Kansas in 1937. He later pursued a master's degree in economics but soon realized it wasn't for him and returned to Kansas to work on a degree in English.

His studies were put on hold when World War II broke out and Stafford was drafted. His registered himself as a conscientious objector. Because of his status as an objector of the war, he was incarcerated in Civilian Public Service Camps for four years. While he was in the camps, he and his fellow inmates fought the system by getting up early to read and write before going to work as a fire fighter, or building and maintaining roads.

When the war ended, he taught high school for a year and spent another year working for a world relief organization. Stafford met Dorothy Franz and they married in 1945. They had four children, the oldest of which, Brett, committed suicide in 1988.

Stafford finished his master's degree at the University of Kansas in 1947, and his thesis about his time spent as a conscientious objector during the war was published as a book of prose titled Down in My Heart that same year.

Then, Stafford spent the bulk of his career teaching at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, until his retirement in 1979. He was known for his 'No praise, no blame' philosophy in his dealings with students. In addition to teaching and writing poetry, he was an avid photographer. Housed among his papers at Lewis and Clark are some 12,000 negatives of photographs of fellow poets, along with his daily writing drafts spanning about 40 years.


Stafford was a great admirer of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and his poetry is readable and accessible.

Stafford's first collection of poems, West of Your City, wasn't published until 1960, when he was 46. Though late to the publishing game, he was a prolific writer: Stafford published almost 50 volumes of poetry and over 10 other books of prose, many of which received awards. Even more, numerous poetry collections were published after his death, including the noteworthy Methow River Poems published in 1995. In one of the river poems, ''You Can't See It,'' we see Stafford's use of the river, explaining that it is a life force that flows underground while we live above ground.

Stafford was a man of faith, but he was not someone who preached in his writing. It was important to him to write poetry that would appeal to readers with varying spiritual ideals. The poems in Even in Quiet Places used the scripture and asked readers to act reverently.

Stafford never wanted to disturb the family, so he did his writing very early in the morning while everyone was still sleeping. In his poem ''Mornings,'' he describes his routine: 'Quiet/ rested the brain begins to burn.'

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