What you gain from this retrospective critical assessment of William Stafford is a sense of what you’ve missed reading his poetry, even if you’ve read him extensively. I’ve read many of his essay collections and the beautiful memoir by his son, Kim. The overall idea these volumes suggest is that Stafford’s prolific output was closer in origin to Kerouac’s legendary, and perhaps false, “First thought, best thought.” Stafford’s poetry is far more complicated than a quick reading indicates, and reading this criticism makes it clear that Stafford paid great attention to his poems, despite his assertions that he didn’t revise much, and let the poem arrive slowly, on its own terms, and almost fully formed.
The fact is that Stafford did allow this to happen, but his ear, his inner vision, and his sense of the “truth” of a poem were simply precursors to a finely tuned end product. In almost every line, there is something happening; every verse is the way it is because Stafford made it that way; every volume he published was designed; and the whole of his work is remarkably consistent in terms of language, theme, and artistic vision.
In other words, reading this book changed the way I read Stafford. I’m compelled to revisit old favorites and dive into poems that I’d previously skimmed over. If you haven’t read Stafford, do so now – he’s one of the finest American poets of the last century, and a great place to begin is “The Way It Is.” And take the time to let each poem settle in. Read them aloud. Think about every word, and then read this book. Stafford is never vague or ambivalent, and yet he questions, doubts and leaves much to the imagination. He does make powerful statements, but even in those poems, there’s always more to discover.