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Background Image William Stafford

William Stafford: Clarity in Times of Anxiety

By Aaron Brown 

For Kansas’s most beloved poet, William Stafford (1914-1993), poetry and activism went hand in hand. After all, Stafford lived through most of the twentieth century and witnessed the great tribulations of the age: from the Great Depression to WWII, from the threat of nuclear war to the divisiveness of Vietnam and the long hard-fought victory of the Civil Rights movement. 

The more I study Stafford’s poetry, the more I feel as if he presented us with a model for how to interact with the world and its problems. On the one hand, Stafford’s poetry contains vivid outrage: consider the bombs and smoke of his poem “These Mornings” where “what is left, for us, between the sky and the earth / is a scar.” Or his poem “Objector,” where we join Stafford in line at the mess hall of his conscientious objector camp during the Second World War and share with him a kind of charged but tempered resistance.

What strikes me most about Stafford, however, is his use of the quiet but powerful ending. His closing lines rivet the reader to the page. The lines know no political party or make no proselytizing claim. Instead, they open just as the Kansas skies and the land that gently rises and falls. These lines linger in our minds and whisper to us as we go about our days. And these lines expose Stafford at his best: urging us to pause and think, to speculate as much as to wonder. 

Perhaps the poem most relevant to the tumultuous, post-9/11 world we live in is “For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid.” In this poem, Stafford describes a “country to cross” that exists in the in-between spaces of things, both a journey we must make and a destination we must reach. And if we are not careful, we may miss the reason for why we are here at all. It is a county “carried as it is crossed” where “fear will not go away.” Rather, it is the fear and anxiety itself that will “take you into / yourself and bless you and keep you.” The poet takes struggles and turns them into transformative, character-building opportunities. This sharpness of mind and generous spirit of humility serve as a reminder: to lovingly choose not battles but conversations, and not to miss the larger glory of the world we find ourselves in. This is what I carry away with me after I set Stafford’s poems aside. After all, “[t]hat’s the world,” observes Stafford at the end of the poem, both with his frank, wry humor but also with a wise stoicism: “we all live there.”

All poems referenced here can be found in Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems by William Stafford (Graywolf 2014).


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