The Pilgrimage of Just Peace in the Poetry of William Stafford

On 29 October 2015, I was invited to give a talk at the Bethany Theological Seminary Presidential Forum on the theme of pilgrimage. I decided to take the opportunity to discuss Stafford again, but in a way that isn’t always thought about. Here are my remarks:

William Stafford, twentieth century American poet, was a conscientious objector in Church of the Brethren camps in the Second World War. He married Dorothy Frantz, daughter of a Brethren minister he met during his service in California. In 1955 and 56, he taught English for a year at Manchester College, and was a baptized member of the Manchester Church of the Brethren. But his family heard the call westward, and he spent the rest of his career teaching English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He received the National Book Award for his book Traveling through the Dark in 1963 (which happens to contain several poems he wrote while at Manchester College). For fifty years, he wrote poems nearly every day, a discipline he began in the CO camps in World War Two, and left behind over three thousand poems when he died in 1993. I’d like to offer a reading of Stafford from the perspective of poet and pilgrim. Perhaps from this view, we might stumble our way towards a theopoetic pilgrimage of just peace.

I’ve always felt that Stafford’s body of work could be read as one scattered, but continuous poem. Poetry critic Judith Kitchen notes, “It is possible to view William Stafford’s work…as if it had been written all at once” (Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford 9). His poems read as if they were tiny pieces from the same narrative, through various landscapes and a multitude of experiences. One could say they were from the journal of a traveler who knows where they are headed and why they are going. A journey with a purpose. In other words, a pilgrimage. Stafford once wrote a narrative of one experience that influenced his writing when was camping alone as a teenager in Kansas. He says, “it was like an Indian vision-quest” (You Must Revise Your Life 7):

In the middle of the night I woke and saw a long, lighted passenger train slowly pulling along across the far horizon. No sound. Steady stars. The morning was dim, sure, an imperceptible brightening of sky with yellow, gray, orange, and then the powerful sun. That encounter with the size and serenity of the earth and its neighbors in the sky has never left me. The earth was my home; I would never feel lost while it held me. (7-8)

For the rest of his life, his poetry would read like a vision-quest, searching the wilderness for new realizations about how to best live his daily life.

Kitchen says about his best known poem, “Traveling through the Dark,” “this journey is through the darkness of indecision, doubt, death. The poem suggests that Stafford is still groping with the questions that the poem raises; it does not offer up easy answers. In fact, the unanswered questions add to, and are part of, its ‘darkness'” (42). And of the American West, the landscape of much of his writing, Kitchen notes, “‘West” is the almost mythological location…where the wilderness offers a way of being in the world…It is unmapped and unmappable, territory of lost history and yet-to-be realized possibilities” (31).

Walking the journey of peace does not bring easy answers, but leaves room for doubt. It is comfortable with the unmapped and unknown territories that we pass through along the way toward compassion and reconciliation. Stafford, I would say, was a pilgrim traveling not toward a world of just peace, but through the world as one informed by a life of such considerations. He was less interested in where that destination would actually be, and more in what happens along the way; a journey that takes generations to complete.

Here are a few of his poems that might lead to a deeper reading of Stafford’s own pilgrimage, and a fuller understanding of just peace:

One Reply to “The Pilgrimage of Just Peace in the Poetry of William Stafford”

  1. As we’ve discussed, Travis, I don’t read much poetry. I mistakenly assume that just because I can’t understand the poems in “The New Yorker,” all poetry is too esoteric for my feeble brain. Thanks for providing links to some of Stafford’s poems and giving me pause to reconsider my “fear” of poetry. I’ll read more.

    Also, I was interested in learning about Stafford’s Brethren connection.


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