William Stafford was one of the most prolific poets in American history, having published more than sixty different volumes of verse over the course of his life which stretched across most of the 20th century. Stafford is the very definition of the idea that artistic inspiration can be willed through habit. His habit was to wake up before dawn every day and get to work willing the artistic muse to sit beside him.
This method proved effective: he managed to publish more than 5,000 poems while still retaining critical respect and influence. He won a National Book Award for Poetry for only his second collection, Traveling Through the Dark. In 1970 he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress; today that position is better known as Poet Laureate of the United States. Stafford also held the position of Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975 to 1990. As might be expected from a catalog of 5,000 poems, many of them celebrate the splendor of Oregon and the title of his eighth collection is An Oregon Message.
Accessibility may be the secret to his success beyond a commitment to writing. In verse often described as conversational, his major recurring themes are related to home, the loss of that home, the effects of memory and nostalgia on the passing of time, man’s incursion into the primitive wilderness and evocations or nuclear annihilation as an ever present part of modern life. The overarching thematic call of his work is perhaps best expressed in his most anthologized poem which also serves as the title for that award-winning collection. “Traveling Through the Dark” is, above all else, a fervent request for man to always do the right thing, not the easiest thing.
A tendency exists for exceptionally prolific creative artists to undermine the reputation of their best work by providing too many examples of merely competent craftsmanship for comparison. William Stafford certainly set himself up for this sort of reappraisal of quality and though such negative revisionism may yet come, he has so far managed to avoid this pitfall of being too fruitful with his talent.