6. Landscapes of the Past: William Stafford (1914–1993)
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132 6 Landscapes of the Past William Stafford (1914–1993) There is a source for this deep restlessness; and the path that leads there is not a path to a strange place, but the path home.  — ​Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard William Stafford’s poetry is distinguished by a reverence for nature instilled during his upbringing on the grasslands of Kansas. His first two collections contain some of his most celebrated and enduring work: West of Your City, followed by Traveling Through the Dark, which garnered a National Book Award and established his reputation as a major voice among twentieth-­century American poets. Both books were profoundly grounded in landscapes of the past and show a pronounced influence of formative experiences of place. Later writing reveals his trajectory westward. Journeys are woven into many poems, both personal and historical ones, reflecting his interest in cultural and environmental history. The Way It Is, for instance, a compilation gleaned from the dozens of volumes published during his lifetime and published posthumously in 1998, spans an impressive geographic range throughout the American West, including the Plains states of the Dakotas; Rocky Mountain states such as Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana; and West Coast states from California to Alaska. Yet places that had been internalized during childhood continued to inform how he perceived landscapes throughout North America. Even late in his career, recollections of the Midwest consistently well up in his work. In fact, the plains of Kansas remained a fundamental frame of reference throughout his writing life, much the way Roethke’s Michigan did in “North American Sequence.” 133 Landscapes of the Past: William Stafford Stafford’s voice as a poet is first and foremost an evocation of place, invoking both environmental and cultural history. In aggregate, his writing demonstrates a keen appreciation for the continent’s varied topography; he often historicizes his accounts by incorporating references to pioneers who in settling there displaced indigenous peoples that had preceded them by millennia. In fact, West of Your City, his first volume of verse, opens with an unmistakable emphasis on the prairie biome of Kansas grasslands. “One Home,” for example, situates his own family’s oral history in the broader sweep of initial white settlement, triggering memories of Indians who long inhabited the region before being pushed westward: Mine was a Midwest home... outside, the buffalo grass, and the wind at night. A wildcat sprang at Grandpa on the Fourth of July when he was cutting plum bushes for fuel, before Indians pulled the West over the edge of the sky.1 Images of the region’s native flora arise throughout these poems, such as stands of cottonwoods and wild plum bushes punctuating vast tracts of buffalo grass in a prairie biome animated by a wide array of wildlife. Indeed the litany of species encountered in the new and selected poems, The Way It Is, reads like a field guide, encompassing mammals such as antelope , badger, buffalo, cougar, coyote, deer, horse, muskrat, and wildcat, as well as birds such as cranes, killdeer, hawks, herons, and quail, and finally even fish, above all salmon. “Wild things wait,” he recollects in “Midwest,” “crouched in those valleys / west of your city outside your lives.” 2 The grasslands encompassed a region where agricultural acreage intersected with vast tracts of open space. “Where I walk is road,” he wrote, “but where I look around is wilderness, if I look far enough.” 3 Though not the relatively extensive ecosystems of remote wilderness preserves, perhaps, natural abundance could still be readily glimpsed nearby: “beyond the Cimarron crossing / and after the row-­crop land,” he wrote, “a lake would surprise the country / and sag with a million birds.” 4 The first compelling evidence of Stafford’s lifelong affinity for the grasslands of Kansas is provided by “White Pigeons,” evidently his first attempt to compose a poem while still an undergraduate at Kansas University . This poem appears in Another World Instead, a collection selected 134 Poets Expressing Ecological Sensibilities from archives of some four hundred previously unpublished works dating from as early as 1937.5 This is the aching land, The bleak and desolate. This is the plains. On this blank loneliness in huddled clump A house, a barn, and fences. A boy foreshortened, small, wind-­ buffeted, His pigeons watched come home. Hard sky, hard earth.6 This, his very first utterance in verse, immediately establishes a geographical consciousness while expressing a desire, much like Roethke’s, to situate his sense of self in...


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