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The Truth Seeker: William Stafford and God

Leah Perri

While religious and spiritual themes abound in his work, American poet William Stafford
is difficult to categorize in terms of his religious beliefs. The speakers in many of his poems
wrestle with lifes bigger questions and are in search for higher truths, often calling on God or
criticizing God in times of distress. Throughout his lifetime, Stafford was exposed to multiple
organized religions, but he never identified with a specific denomination. However, he was a
very spiritual person. What does it mean to be spiritual, but not religious? According to the
Oxford English Dictionary, the word spiritual means, of or relating to, affecting or
concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities (OED). For Stafford, it seems this philosophy of
having higher moral qualities was his guiding belief. For him, it wasnt about following a
religious doctrine. In an interview, he described himself as a religious poet whose vocabulary,
reference points, and surrounding culture are phrased in Christian terms (Answers 27).
Ultimately, it is this way of living of following a true moral code that seems to guide Stafford as
his religious doctrine or spirituality. In his work, spiritual and religious allusions come
frequently. Often in these poems, the speaker finds spiritual solace in nature, or recognizes a
higher power that humans will never be able to comprehend or have control over. However,
occasionally, Stafford refers explicitly to God in his poems. In the early poems of William
Stafford, 1937-1947, collected in Another World Instead, Stafford references God in four
poems. In the 1977 new and selected poem collection, The Way It Is, Stafford refers to God in
23 poems. He also uses the word God in poems not included in either of these two collections,
but again, the word use is used occasionally, not frequently. The different ways Stafford portrays

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God in his poetry is reflective of his spiritual beliefs, and his inability to decide where and how
God exists. His poems, while addressing God and lifes big questions, do not make a forceful
statement one way or another about organized religion or about God; rather, Stafford is turning
these ideas over in his mind and having a conversation of sorts with the reader. In some poems,
God is absent or passive, and the speaker criticizes God; in others, God is found in natural
elements, representing a force humans cannot alter, one that shows no mercy and can be
powerful and destructive; and yet in others, God is representative as a sort of overarching ideal
about the way to live ones life.
Stafford grew up practicing mainstream Protestantism, and he regularly went to Sunday
school, though his family had no firm denominational affiliation (Marchant xiv). According to
critic Fred Marchant, his family was skeptical of war-mongering political leaders, though his
brother, Bob, was a bomber pilot during WWII (xiv). Stafford, by contrast, declared himself a
conscientious objector during WWII and worked for four years in Civilian Public Service, where
he did a number of conservation projects on work camps in the U.S. CPS was a collaboration
between historic peace churches, including the Friends, the Mennonites, and the Church of the
Brethren (Marchant xvi). At the University of Kansas in the late 1930s, Stafford became a
member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation a pacifist organization originally run by
Christians, but one that was ecumenical and committed to social justice (Marchant xv). The
organization was composed of men and women who recognize the essential unity of mankind
and have joined together to explore the power of love and truth for resolving human conflict
(Andrews 170). This seems to be Staffords overarching belief and attitude that he carried
through to his adult life: one of pacifism and peace. According to Marchant, a peaceful
reconciliation of conflict seems to have emerged as Staffords core ethical belief during his

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college years (xv). Staffords wife, Dorothy, was the daughter of a Brethren minister whom he
met at CPS camps. While Bill and Dorothy raised their children in this religion, Bill always
seemed to be skeptical and questioning, according to Dorothy (Wixon 44). When it came to
recognizing a certain god, Stafford didnt hold any solid convictions on it. He states: My sense
of the nature of God is neither firm nor infirm; it is just there (You Must Revise). While he may
not have believed specifically in any god and his wife, Dorothy, said once in an interview that
she didnt know whether or not he believed in God he certainly paid attention to the world
around him and was aware of God. His mixed feelings on the exact nature of God are typical of
many people, and through his poetry, he questions the exact nature of God by portraying God in
different ways.
For one, the speakers in Staffords poetry often refer to Gods absence in times of
distress. Stafford wrote poems of this nature throughout his life, but he really began questioning
God in his years working in Civilian Public Service. In the 1946 poem, Country Boy at
CollegePostwar, Staffords speaker criticizes God in a way. He writes: And there was
whoever God was,/ holding up the sky, and always to lean on/ taking orders from someone in
the War Department (Another World 106). While God is holding up the sky, an act that
suggests he is taking care of the world and its beings, the act is undermined by the fact that he is
taking orders from someone in the War Department. The fact that God might be taking orders
from someone in the War Department is a statement that was probably inspired by the violence
and chaos going on in the world during this time when World War II was in full swing. During
this time when Stafford was serving as a CO, he was likely questioning God and wondering
about Gods role during wars. Why wasnt God doing more to prevent all of the destruction?
Generally, most of Staffords poems call on humanity to change its destructive ways when it

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comes to war, but this poem is unique in directly criticizing God. The speaker criticizes God for
not intervening and guiding in any way. The speaker portrays God as a small entity who takes
orders from someone else, which is the opposite of how many view God. While the speaker is
directly questioning God in this poem, it is not likely that Stafford sought out to make a religious
statement with this poem. In You Must Revise Your Life, Stafford describes how asserting certain
values in poetry can be detrimental: a direct assertion is a most limited offer of experience for a
worthy reader (68). Instead of directly asserting his values, Stafford writes freely and lets the
material talk back (You Must 21).
Similarly, in the 1970 poem, Religion Back Home, Staffords speaker again criticizes
God for being absent, but with a lighter tone. While the poem as a whole reads as a sort of joke,
the poem opens rather solemnly: When Gods parachute failed,/ about the spring of 1945,/ the
sky in Texas jerked open/ and we all sailed easily/ into this new strange harness on the stars
(The Way It Is 126). The speakers claim that Gods parachute failed implies that perhaps God
may have been able to prevent some of the violence during World War II, but he failed. Instead
of harshly criticizing God, however, Stafford seems to be making the statement matter-of-factly,
and begins poking fun at Christian doctrine and its traditions and customs. He refers to the
minister who smoked and drank; he changes the words to the Christian Our Father prayer by
saying, Our Father Who art in Heaven/ can lick their Father Who art in Heaven; and ends the
poem with his little brother confusing Jesus with Christopher Columbus. The poem implies that,
although people are following these religious doctrines so to speak by going to church and
saying prayers, are they truly living these doctrines by practicing peace? At first glance, it may
appear that Stafford is saying that religious doctrines are pointless, but he may be doing just the
opposite. In an email exchange, Kim Stafford explained how he never felt his father had a

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disdain for organized religion. Kim states: I hear my father saying his belief is so complete, so
much a part of who he is, that to talk directly about his spiritual life would be to diminish it (Re:
William Staffords religious beliefs). With this poem, Stafford is not being anti-religious in any
way; rather, he is poking fun at peoples need to express their beliefs loudly. For Stafford, his
spiritual beliefs are deeply ingrained, but also very complex, and so beyond the ability to express
them properly. In an interview, Dorothy described this poking fun at religion as Bills innocent
reckless talk, and not something he took too seriously (Wixon 44). In this poem and in others,
Stafford is not directly criticizing religious doctrine, but simply making observations, because,
for him, its not the local content of the religion that possesses me, but the general attitude, the
way of living that recognizes more than we know (Answers 27). Stafford believes in following a
moral code and being a good person, rather than in categorizing himself in a specific religious
In the 1983 poem Meditation, Staffords speaker again questions the absence of God,
but this time God is actively passive in a way that puzzles the speaker. The poem begins by
describing animals walking through the forest that are hunted and eventually killed. The speaker
then moves his thoughts from the animals deaths to a larger scale: Thats the world: God/
holding still/ letting it happen again,/ and again and again (The Way It Is 151). At first glance,
one might think that Stafford is criticizing God for not preventing the innocent deaths of the
animals. However, upon a closer look, the poem contains more complexity than that. The
speaker is meditating on how primal the act of killing animals is, as the title of the poem
suggests, and perhaps comparing how animals are killed to how humans are killed. In reference
to war and killing, a topic Stafford felt strongly against and spent a good deal of time reflecting
on, perhaps the speaker is questioning whether humanitys thirst for war and revenge is

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something God would be capable of fixing or preventing. Is God letting death happen in the
world, or is humanity letting death happen? Since God is actively holding still in this poem,
perhaps the speaker is making the connection that God is an all-knowing entity that knows it is
not up to God to stop the killing, but up to humanity. In this way, Stafford shifts the questioning
from God and his purpose to humanity and humanitys morals.
Another prominent way Stafford portrays God in his poems is in natural elements. In
many of his poems, Staffords speakers find a kind of spiritual beauty and solace in nature
however, Stafford does not use the word God directly in poems of this type. In the poems that
he does use the word God specifically in reference to nature, he often portrays God as a
powerful, destructive force that humans cannot alter. In the 1966 poem Walking the
Wilderness, for example, God is found in the destructiveness of winter. As critic Judith Kitchen
points, the words cold and sky, which are both used in this poem, are often synonymous
with the presence of God, or the endless, persistent otherness of things outside the human
consciousness (52). The speaker, while walking in and out of a dream wasteland, describes
Gods eye that freezes people, His zero breath / their death (Poetry Foundation). The speaker
goes on further to say that this God never notices opposition and seems to have an air of
indifference toward humans. This is a very different God from the God who is passive or absent
in Staffords other poems. This God is closely associated with cold and death, while the humans
are associated with warmth and life. By portraying God and humanity on these two opposite
spectrums, Stafford creates a sort of distance between God and humanity, establishing the fact
that God is a force that humans may never be able to understand and that they are essentially
powerless against this force. Again, Stafford likely did not set out to write a poem portraying
God in this way in order to make a statement; rather, the poem came about naturally. This poem

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also coincides with Staffords own opinion of God. In an interview in You Must Revise Your Life,
Stafford states: My belief (in God) is just something like where north is to a compass: I can
sway, I can be confused. But north is still there (69). Not only does this poem literally portray
God as the northern cold, but it also demonstrates how God is an entity that is always there for
Stafford. Whether or not Stafford believed in a Christian God, this poem is an example of
Stafford thinking these things through in his head. The idea of God is difficult for many humans
to grasp, and Stafford admits to being swayed and confused often, as evident in poems like this
and others.
Another poem in which God is found in natural elements is in the 1962 poem, The
Tillamook Burn. This poem, while referring to the actual forest fires that took place in Oregon
during this time, reads like a parable and portrays an Old Testament type of God: These
mountains have heard God;/ they burned for weeks. He spoke/ in a tongue of flame from sawmill
trash (The Way It Is 84). In this poem, God is a powerful force not just found in the cold or in a
storm but a force that can set fire to the mountains at any moment, and whose voice can be
heard down to the rock (The Way It Is 84). This God is one who demonstrates his power for
the sake of reminding humanity whos in charge, a typical depiction of God in Old Testament
Bible readings. The poem concludes on a pessimistic note:
Inland along the canyons
all night weather smokes
past the deer and the widow-makers
trees too dead to fall till again He speaks,
Mowing the criss-cross trees and the listening peaks. (The Way It Is 85)
Again, Stafford demonstrates Gods power to destroy through natural elements. However, his
purpose in doing this is not to portray God as an evil and merciless force, but to present a

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lessonof humility for mankind (Andrews 175). Critic Peter Stitt states: in the face of
tornadoes, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, the numbing cold of winter, even the strongest of
mans devices pale to a powerless insignificance (Andrews 175). This idea of humility in
regards to a higher power is a value Stafford seemed to hold in his personal life and through his
poetry. Furthermore, Stafford is not a traditional nature poet, as Stitt says, but instead a
wisdom poet who uses the world of nature as a means to an endhe is in pursuit of a truth
higher than those customarily perceived by ordinary men leading ordinary lives (Andrews 175).
Stafford simply paid close attention to the world around him and remained open-minded in
pursuit of these higher truths. It wasnt religious doctrine that would lead him to these truths
rather a sort of deep listening to the world around him, as Fred Marchant describes it (xxiv).
He goes on to say that Staffords listening is a paradigm of mindful human connectedness that
includes listening both outwardly to the world around him as well as inwardly at his conscience
(xxiv). By doing this, Stafford had a religious doctrine of his own to live by, so to speak. By
paying close attention, he was also able to recognize the positive morals and values that surround
this idea of God.
In numerous poems, Stafford uses the word God as a representation of moral ideals and
a way of life. In Our Home, written in 1960, Staffords speaker proudly describes his Midwest
home and values that are near God:
Mine was a Midwest homeyou can keep your world.
Plain black hats rode the thoughts that made our code.
We sang hymns in the house; the roof was near God.
To anyone who looked at us we said, My friend;
liking the cut of a thought, we could say Hello.
(But plain black hats rode the thoughts that made our code.)
The sun was over our town; it was like a blade.
Kicking cottonwood leaves we ran toward storms.

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Wherever we looked the land would hold us up. (The Way It Is 60-61)
Simplicity characterizes life in this Midwestern home, with plain black hats as a life code, free
of the obsession of money and material items. The family sings hymns and runs toward
storms, taking comfort in the fact that the land will hold (them) up wherever they go (The
Way It Is 60-61). Contrary to some of Staffords other poems, where God is absent or God is a
powerful, destructive force, in this poem, God is a positive figure associated with this humble
way of living. The people living in this home value family, simple foods and clothing, being
outside, and they seem to be thankful for what they have. Staffords portrayal of God as an entity
that encourages morality and peace reflects another way that Stafford views and thinks about this
higher power or entity and the purpose of life. Regardless of whether or not Stafford believed in
a true god or God, he used the word God in poems like this one to represent a general positive
ideal of peace and positivity. As Kim Stafford reflects in Early Morning, life with his parents,
family and aunts was guided by a sweet but sturdy doctrine of devotion to family, to calm, to a
practiced happiness and its mirror, silence about dark things (235). Stafford clearly lived by
these ideals with his family, and this poem reflects that belief.
In Staffords 1977 poem, On a Church Lawn, the use of the word God is also
consistent with Staffords beliefs on peace and morality. The poem is a simple one on the
surface, describing dandelions in a yard in front of a church:
They surround a church and outside the window
utter their deaf little cry: If you listen
well, music wont have to happen.
After service they depart singly
to mention in the world their dandelion faith:
God is not big; He is right. (The Way It Is 55).

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In this poem, the dandelions cry out that if one listen(s) well, music is not necessary a
statement that echoes Staffords own philosophy on the act of listening deeply in place of
organized religious doctrine (Marchant xxiv). If one follows a moral code and pays close
attention to the world around them and to themselves, as Stafford seems to believe, then putting a
formal label on ones beliefs becomes trivial. The wise dandelions in this poem make an even
more profound statement in the final line of this poem: God is not big; He is right (The Way It
Is 55). This line sets up a sort of dichotomy in how God is often talked about: God is either both
large and powerful and evil, or he is small and morally good. This poem seemed to hold a special
place in Staffords heart, because when asked if he could be remembered by only one poem,
which would he choose, Stafford responded with this poem because of this final line, one that he
predicted would be some little sort of nagging thing that no one would think very much of at
any certain time, but they would never quite get rid of it (Writing the Australian 100).
Although Stafford portrays God in a number of different ways in his poetry God as
absent or passive, God as a powerful destructive force of nature, and God as a spiritual or moral
ideal, and many more all of these different representations of God accumulate to represent
Staffords conflicting and ever-changing and evolving ideas about spirituality. As Stafford has
said about his writing, he does not set out with the intent to make a statement on a particular
topic, rather, he lets the poem tell him what it is about, in a sense (You Must 68). These poems
reflect Staffords internal questioning in search of lifes truths. As Kim discusses in Early
Morning, Staffords religion was thinking (244). Kim goes on in more detail:
In a world where, as (William) said, the trivial twins of success and failure may clutter
up and down our days, he had a tropism toward truth. But this truth could only be

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earned by the individual in a search my father carried out by writing, by reading, and by
wrestling with hard things in his own mind. (Early Morning 244)
Writing poetry was Staffords method to finding truth in the world. When it came to making
sense of God and spirituality, Stafford again turned to his writing, and wrestl(ed) with the hard
things in his own mind (Early Morning 244). His different portrayals of God in his poems
reflects his changing opinions on God and spirituality, which, in a way, is true for a lot of us. The
morning of the day William Stafford died, August 28th, 1993, he wrote about the mystery of
God one last time:
You dont have to
prove anything, my mother said. Just be ready
for what God sends. I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.
Well, it was yesterday. And the sun came,
It came. (Early Morning 287)

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Works Cited
Andrews, Tom, ed. On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things. Ann Arbor: The University
of Michigan Press, 1993. Print.
Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon
State University Press, 1999. Print.
Marchant, Fred. Introduction. Another World Instead. By William Stafford. Saint Paul: Graywolf
Press, 2008. xi-xxiv. Print.
"Spiritual, adj. and n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 9
December 2015.
Stafford, Kim. Early Morning. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2002. Print.
Stafford, Kim. Re: William Staffords religious beliefs. Message to Kim Stafford. 10 Dec.
2015. E-mail.
Stafford, William. Walking the Wilderness. The Poetry Foundation. The Poetry Foundation.
Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
Stafford, William. You Must Revise Your Life. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press,
1986. Print.
Stafford, William. The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life. Ann
Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2003. Web.
Stafford, William. The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1977.
Stafford, William. Writing the Australian Crawl. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press,
1978. Print.

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Wixon, Vince and Patty. Feeling At Home: An Interview with Dorothy Stafford. Ashland and
Lake Oswego, Oregon: Lewis & Clark College Special Collections, 1998-1999. Web.