Editor’s Note: Often on the MockingHeart Review blog we highlight contemporary writers through interviews, book reviews, and other means. It seems important as well to bring attention to writers past, especially those who have left valuable insights we might benefit from studying (which is to say, I suppose, quite a few folks). This review/essay focuses on William Stafford, noted poet and teacher, and the twentieth Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a title later called U.S. Poet Laureate). His insights on craft and the ways of writing, espoused well in this book, are myriad and worth extensive study.
–Tyler Robert Sheldon, Editor-in-Chief
Known as perhaps the quintessential Kansas poet, William Stafford brought a quiet assurance to his writing that is evidenced in both his poetry and in records of his life as a teacher at Oregon’s Lewis and Clark College. Perhaps more importantly, though, in his writing habits and the advice he gave to his fellow writers, Stafford espoused a solid sense for what poetry is capable of. In his craft book Writing the Australian Crawl, Stafford offers his view on writing and on the business of being a writer. He utilizes and advocates a powerful but understated tone, and also evinces meticulousness where poetic structure is concerned. In his study of how and why writers pursue their craft, Stafford offers his own credo as a possible way of looking at the literary world and the world at large: “a writer isn’t simply a craftsman with something to say and the skills to say it. Rather, a writer brings those attributes into a process that is filled with exciting emergencies and opportunities” (from the back cover). Crucial to Stafford’s perception of writing is the notion that his ideas are one way of looking at the world, not the only way. This open-mindedness informs Writing the Australian Crawl and allows for immersive, easily retained reading.
One of the most striking tenets that Stafford sets forth in Crawl—and one that seems highly important on the whole—is his idea that receptivity is crucial to creative writing. Here Stafford’s writing habits come into play, as he describes rising at four in the morning to make coffee and toast, and then laying down on the sofa with paper and pen to begin his daily writing (Stafford 17-19). In his memoir and biography Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford, Stafford’s son Kim (himself a noted poet and essayist) makes note of this ritual as well, emphasizing the fact that such early mornings resulted in hundreds of poem drafts and notes about goings-on (Early Morning 5). Being willing to write whatever idea comes into one’s head, Stafford notes, is key to getting actual words on the page. Those words can be edited later, but most important of all is that first generative act.
This receptivity, Stafford asserts, works in tandem with a necessary willingness to fail. Perhaps the Kansas-born poet’s most famous axiom is advice to writers who run into creative stumbling blocks. While this saying is often paraphrased as “lower your standards and keep writing,” Stafford points out that these “‘standards’ . . . do not mean ‘correctness’—spelling, punctuation, and so on. These details become mechanical for anyone who writes for a while.” Instead, the poet emphasizes the importance of holistic discovery rather than a focus on minutiae at the expense of message. These latter foci, Stafford notes, are distractions that “may harm the creating.” His view here is simple on its face: focus on generating writing, no matter the subject, will allow for more writing to occur. For a poet known to have produced some 20,000 poems in his lifetime, that advice seems sound: “[r]eceptive, careless of failure, I spin out things on the page. And a wonderful freedom comes. If something occurs to me, it is all right to accept it” (Stafford 18).
In addition to receptivity, Stafford also champions instinct and “feeling” when writing—what he calls “composing in language.” His emphasis on composing by feel seems like a wholly honest approach to writing: rather than relying on stoic (and perhaps tired) conventions, the poet may benefit the most from experimenting with what feels best. Composing, in other words, by intuition and accrued poetic sensibility rather than by stringent rules. Stafford asserts that rhythm of speech will influence placement and arrangement: “how the words go on the page” (53). To that end, he seems to argue, the sonic qualities of poetry can be tied very strongly to the visual properties of word arrangement, and of words’ interaction with the white space of the page. Symmetry and asymmetry are important in influencing that word placement, but Stafford’s assertion that such placement should feel “right” allows for individualized expression that defies formula: “fresh” poetry. In his characteristic plain-spoken style, Stafford summarizes this idea efficiently: “[o]ne who composes in language confronts opportunity too varied for fixed rules” (55).
Furthering his assertion that fixed rules are not the only tenets of “good” writing, in Writing the Australian Crawl Stafford approaches diction, and the words that compose it, with a light but decisive hand. In the included essay “Some Arguments Against Good Diction,” he upends what he thinks of as the traditional “writerly” image: one who has, quite literally, words within physical arm’s reach. Stafford poses it thus: “Apparently for many people the writer is conceived as a person sitting at a big desk with cubby-holes containing all the words there are . . . a novice learns an adequate vocabulary, sits down at his desk with all the cubbyholes, and is a writer” (57). As Stafford argues, the overarching implication here is that diction and vocabulary alone can craft a good writer.
He counters this idea by illustrating his own experience when writing—he feels compelled to do so, and the words he uses do not sit sedate in a filing cabinet. Rather, they jump out at Stafford, clamoring to be recorded: “Where words come from, into consciousness, baffles me. Speaking or writing, the words bounce instantaneously into their context . . . They do not wait for my selection; they volunteer” (57). Putting this idea of writing as intuition or compulsion into a more universal context (and carrying on that concept of writing what feels correct), Stafford notes that for writing to be powerful, it is helpful to wait for language’s arrival when it deems the moment to be correct: “let the language itself begin to shape the event by its means. If . . . we happen upon a word with a syllable that reverberates with many other syllables in contexts that reinforce what the immediate word is doing, we have ‘powerful language’” (59). Once again, in other words, writing through feeling can often be an efficient way to good writing. This approach shrugs off typical strictures associated with diction, allowing for poetry to occur more organically than it might if constrained by form or other limitations.
In addition to these technical and theoretical perspectives on what makes for efficient writing, Stafford importantly asserts that poetry comes not just from academic study but also from drawing on life experience. In fact, he argues, one’s draw toward poetry may stem first from one’s interactions outside school, college, or academia at large. In the essay “Whose Tradition?” Stafford points out that “[older students] read and write a language that grows from daily experience rather than literary experience . . . It is now true that the universe from which we speak is the universe of immediacy, the realm of conversation. Poems are intervals of freedom and excitement in the language that even the youngest and the most ‘uneducated’ flourish in” (77). Here, Stafford refuses the commonly held idea that only older, more educated people can properly appreciate poetry, a revelatory insight for those accustomed to the “ivory tower” perception that frequently shrouds poetry in a layer of academic mystique.
The latter section of Writing the Australian Crawl is comprised of interview transcripts and Stafford’s conversations with other writers. In an interview with Cynthia Lofsness, Stafford notes that while he reads some contemporary poetry, he dabbles more than immerses himself into it: when he does read contemporary poetry, “it’s sort of like nibbling olives or something” (85). Going further, Stafford implies that he trusts his own voice and enjoys those of other writers, but wishes to stay individual in style—and he also notes that his individualism even extends back to his first days of writing poetry. When Lofsness asks him when he realized he wanted to be a poet, Stafford replies, “My question is ‘when did other people give up the idea of being a poet?’” (86). He also confirms once again that when he works at his writing, he is “really working by means of those things that are closest to him, his sustained immediate feelings” (87).
In a revealing moment, Stafford also later lends insight to the criticism of poetry. Poetry critics, he notes, tend to be very hard edged at times, but when poets themselves are the critics, they might go the opposite route: “most of them [are] too careful, too benevolent.” He clarifies that statement quickly, adding, “I don’t mean that they ought to be mean to each other, but we have to learn to accept the person’s acceptance and rejection.” This tempered approach, Stafford suggests, creates a balance between two extremes: overt harshness and sycophantism, with the latter being no doubt just as harmful as solely negative words. He also acknowledges, though, that poets often have the hardest time critiquing each other’s work, as they (foremost among critics, it seems) veer hard to those extremes. As Stafford puts it, “A critic ought to be at least as mean as a poet. And most poets, when they turn critic, either turn entirely mean . . . or they get too soft” (109). Clearly, finding that balance can be quite a difficult task.
Regardless of that happy medium, though, for poets the question can be far more elemental—an almost existential concern with how long they will be able to keep writing, how long inspiration will continue to flow from their fingertips to the page. In an interview with Stafford toward the end of Writing the Australian Crawl, Sanford Pinsker references W.H. Auden and Theodore Roethke, pointing out that “when they finish a poem that they know is really good, the satisfaction quickly fades into [that] anxious question: ‘Maybe this is the last time?’” When Sanford directs this question at Stafford, he demurs, arguing that he feels he will always find a way and a reason to write: “Will we think of something else? Sure we will. We always do. I do not at all have that feeling. . . . All these things are expendable and the more expendable you keep feeling these [writing] things are, the more likely you are to have things happen to you” (116).
This confidence in writing’s constancy is one of the most assuring parts of Writing the Australian Crawl; it reaffirms that inspiration never really leaves us. Stafford takes the notion further when he states that he doesn’t believe in writer’s block: “I can imagine a person beginning to feel that he’s not able to write up to that standard the world has set for him. . . . The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I’m meeting right now. Of course I can write. Anybody can write” (116-117). This open-minded stance spurred Stafford on to write some 20,000 poems over the course of his lifetime, and it is one of this volume’s most inspiring moments. For these reasons and still others, Writing the Australian Crawl is an excellent book for beginning and experienced writers like, so that we may hone our craft and approach each new piece and early morning of writing with the feeling and perspective necessary to make it a success. With Stafford’s guidance in mind, these tasks will not be so very difficult to accomplish.
Stafford, Kim. Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 2002.
Stafford, William. Writing the Australian Crawl. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1978.
Tyler Robert Sheldon is Editor-in-Chief of MockingHeart Review. His five poetry collections include Driving Together (Meadowlark Books, 2018) and Consolation Prize (Finishing Line Press, 2018). His poetry, fiction, artwork, and criticism have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Pleiades, The Tulane Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and other venues. A Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of the Charles E. Walton Essay Award, he earned his MFA at McNeese State University. View his work at TylerRobertSheldon.com.