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Elizabyth

Ladwig

Seminar

Dr. Armstrong

20 October 2015

William Staffords Level Light

In Writing the Australian Crawl, William Stafford describes how he writes and why

he writes the way he does. In an interview, Stafford uses log rolling as a metaphor for

writing poetry: I look at it this way: you can run across a log pondyou know, where

theyre floating the logs at a sawmillby stepping on one log at a time. And if you dont

stay on a given log very long, you can go hopping clear across the pond on these logs. But if

you stop on one, itll sink (124). You cant stand on one poem too long, or itll sink. One of

his poems, Level Light, adheres to this idea of his. The poem first appeared in William

Staffords daily writing on March 20, 1955. There are only two drafts of the poem: a first

draft and a documentary copy. Level Light had a very quick turnaround for Stafford. He

revised the poem once and finished it on the same day. Stafford sent it to only one

magazine, the Colorado Quarterly, before it was accepted on August 1, 1955, about four

months later.

Level Light was originally published in West of Your City in 1960. It is situated

between the two poems Boom Town and Two Evenings. Boom Town is about

Staffords hometown, which has seen better days. The first two stanzas of the poem

describes how the town was during its heyday. Stafford describes how active the night used

to be: the oil well engines would make noise, and the snakes at the edge of the town would

listen all night. The last two stanzas describe the town after the oil was all pumped out:
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theres only one solitary pump that still stands, and its very old. The snakes have forgotten

about the oil pumps that used to be there and go about their business during the night. The

town may be failing, but the animals are thriving again. The poem that comes after Level

Light, Two Evenings, is in two sections. The first section describes how Stafford saw a

herd of antelope from the car one evening but wasnt able to watch them. The car drove on

because they were going somewhere. The second section describes a different evening

when Stafford sees bats flying about. Their chaotic flying patterns remind him of watching

people coming out of an office building when work is done. While the bats seemed to have a

purpose to Stafford, the people coming out of the building dont.

With Level Light situated between these two poems, Stafford seems to be stressing

the need for humans to make a connection with the world. In Boom Town, the town

thrived only because people were able to pull resources from the earth. When the

resources were gone, so was the town. The town failed because it didnt establish a

sustainable relationship with the earth. In Two Evenings, people are always in a rush and

dont seem to have any greater purpose than getting work done. The people have failed in

creating a connection with the earth here as well and are left standing like deer in

headlights at the end of the poem. Level Light is different than these poems, though.

Stafford takes time to watch the sunset and is able to create a connection with the world.

By placing Level Light between Boom Town and Two Evenings, Stafford seems to be

showing us what we could experience if we truly stopped every once in a while and just

listened to and watched the world.

Theres a chance that while writing Level Light, Stafford was responding to Emily

Dickinsons poem Theres a Certain Slant of Light. Stafford was a known fan of Dickinsons
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poetry. In an interview published in Writing the Australian Crawl, Stafford confesses his

love for Dickinson: I dont think there is any poet writing today, man or woman, who is as

great as Emily Dickinson (90). In Theres a Certain Slant of Light, Dickinson is bemoaning

the shift to winter:

There's a certain Slant of light,


Winter Afternoons
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the Meanings, are

None may teach it Any
'Tis the seal Despair
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air

When it comes, the Landscape listens
Shadows hold their breath
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death

In Level Light, Stafford seems to be telling Dickinson that winter isnt so bad as she

thinks. When the days start to shorten in the shift from fall to winter, the light of the sunset

isnt really slanting over the world, like Dickinson thinks, its really level with the world.

The short daylight of winter doesnt oppress, it enlightens everything.

The two drafts of Level Light are fairly different, with only a few lines transferring

from the first draft to the final draft. The first draft is longer than the final, by about two

stanzas and is fairly disjointed. Stafford begins by reflecting on a man he once knew, Smitty

Baker:

When I knew him Smitty Baker looked like some hellbent


motorcycle rider. Remember the gray company house
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where the family of musicians and intellectuals lived, out in
the knee high saw grass?

The second stanza seems to describe the way Smitty and Stafford spent their time:

Why did we want to stilt and yellow-stare


parts of counties west of here?
Going through them was being away from home
and stopping was a picnic or a flat tire.

They would stare at parts of counties west of here (l. 6). The next lines describe how they

would travel and only stop for a picnic or a flat tire (l. 8). Stafford implies that they were

looking for something in the counties to the west of themwhat, specifically, isnt

mentioned. The next few lines describe a phenomenon Stafford and Smitty would

sometimes witness right before the sun set and night took over:

light when
4 w ith a kind
1 Sometimes the shadow where evening fails
of a color
ing
escaped
from corn 2 stains all haystacked country, and hills;
3 runs the cornrows and clasps the barn.

Stafford describes the moment just before the sun sets over particularly flat plainsthe

sun seems to be resting on the ground, and it creates a level light for which the poem was

named after. These four lines describing this event are the only ones that Stafford kept in

the final draft. The only other phrase he keeps from the first draft is leveled shafts on the

world (l. 15), which he turns into a level shaft that tells the world (l. 6) in the final draft.

The next six lines in the first draft describe Staffords reaction to witnessing the sunsethe

is overwhelmed by the leveled shafts on the world (l. 15).

These last six lines are probably the most confusing of the poem:

thing
5 Then I am with any shadowed and feared.
may be villain
But [If] you [are] barred and a terror to me
Ladwig 5

a
I come part way, carrying love.
Overwhelmed, I see leveled shafts on the world
but they broke through my no, and found their weekend goal.
orange with its hope, and spent for corn

Stafford has made the most changes in this section, and the phrases he uses are confusing.

Phrases such as they broke through my no, and found their weekend goal (l. 16). The last

line is slightly less confusing, but still hard to decipher: orange with its hope, and spent for

corn (l. 17). It is unclear what is orange with [] hopeis it the land turning orange

from the sun, or Stafford being affected by the beautiful orange light? And what is spent

for corn? Is he talking about spending in the context of currency or using the verb to

describe exhaustion? Stafford must not have thought these lines were crucial to the poem,

because he didnt include the last six lines (except for the level light phrase) in the final

draft.

The final draft is much shorter than the first draft, 10 lines compared to 17:

Sometimes the light when evening fails


stains all haystacked country and hills,
runs the cornrows and clasps the barn
with that kind of color escaped from corn
that brings to autumn the winter word
a level shaft that tells the world:

It is too late now for earlier ways;
now there are only some other ways,
and only one way to find themfail.

In one stride night then takes the hill.
Stafford starts the poem with the four lines he wrote in the middle of his first draft,

scrapping the story of Smitty Baker and the discovery of the level light. He begins in the

middle of his story, dropping the reader directly into the scene, rather than giving any

background information. Stafford didnt make many changes to these four lines, mostly
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word choice revisions. In his essay, The Practice of Composing in Language, Stafford

argues that word choice and the placement of words, pauses, and punctuation is very

important when writingeverything makes a difference (54). He believes to change

anythingthe length of a line, the sequence of pronunciation of syllables by reversing

wordsanythingwill influence the feel of the language (54). Even though Stafford didnt

make many changes to the lines he did keep from the first draft, he understood that small

changes made a huge difference in the feel of the poem. In line one of the final draft, he

used the phrase light when, rather than shadow where (from line nine in the first draft).

This small change did indeed make a huge difference in the tone of the poem. The shadows

in the first draft cover and obscure the cornrows and the barn, creating a dark, threatening

atmosphere in the poem. The light in the final draft illuminates the cornrows and barn for a

brief moment, showing everything, before night takes over. This creates a happier, more

peaceful atmosphere.

In the fourth and fifth lines of the final draft, Stafford branches away from the

overall topic of his first draft. Rather than telling a story about an old friend and a

discovery, Stafford shifts toward talking about the change in seasons. The lines with that

kind of color escaped from corn / that brings to autumn the winter word hint at the shift

from fall to winter (ll. 4-5). Rather than using the rest of the poem to describe how the

sunset affected himself (as in the first draft), Stafford reflects on the impact the seasonal

shift has on the world. This shift in topic from the first to final draft is a shift from a

symbolist view to an immanentist one.

In his book, Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the

1960s, Charles Altieri defines these terms. A symbolist poet seeks to transform nature into
Ladwig 7

satisfying human structures, while an immanentist poet looks towards the discovery and

disclosure of numinous relationships within nature (Altieri 17). In the first draft of Level

Light, Stafford focuses on how his relationship with Smitty Baker affected him and after

witnessing the leveled shafts on the world (l. 15), he reflects on how the experience

affected him:

thing
5 Then I am with any shadowed and feared.
may be villain
But [If] you [are] barred and a terror to me
a
I come part way, carrying love.
Overwhelmed, I see leveled shafts on the world
but they broke through my no, and found their weekend goal.
orange with its hope, and spent for corn

Stafford is overwhelmed. Not just from the beauty of the scene, but from the sunsets ability

to break through his barriers. Stafford shows the reader that he has made a connection to

the world in these last few lines. He is looking inward at the effect the sunset has had on

him, taking a symbolist view with this poem. Without this reaction from Stafford in the final

draft, the reader doesnt know how he felt about the sunset, or the connection he made.

Instead, Stafford opens the poem up to the world and allows the reader to interpret it and

make his or her own connection. By doing this, he takes an immanentist view and looks

outward, towards the world and his readers.

The revisions Stafford made from his first draft of Level Light to his final draft

demonstrate one of the ideas about writing he laid out in Writing the Australian Crawl: the

idea that he needed to write to discover what he was writing about. In his essay A Way of

Writing, Stafford states to get started I will accept anything that occurs to me (17). He

continues to write, just letting his thoughts guide him, not analyzing anything just yet.
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Stafford explains that if he just lets this process continue, things will occur to [him] that

were not at all in [his] mind when [he] started (18). In the case of Level Light, the first

thought that occurred to him was Smitty Baker, a man he once knew. Stafford kept writing

until he discovered what he really wanted to talk aboutthe unique sunset he experienced

with Smitty. This is shown through his choices while revising this poem. He only kept the

lines from the first draft that described the sunset.

Staffords ideas about revision also transfer to his choice of form for the final

version. In the first draft, there are two distinguishable stanzas: the first quatrain talking

about Smitty Baker and the family of musicians, and 13 line stanza that makes up the rest

of the poem. Stafford seemed to have a focused idea or topic he wanted to talk about at

first, which could be why he defaulted to his preferred stanza length, the quatrain. The

ideas within the quatrain in his first draft of Level Light are fairly organized: Stafford is

remembering Smitty Baker, then describes Smitty and the place Stafford probably met him

and spent time with him, the company house. The ideas and word choice in the 13 line

stanza are much more scattered than those of the quatrain, signaling Stafford was trying to

discover what he wanted to write about. The thoughts and ideas in this longer stanza

wander, from travelling across the country, to sunsets, and then feelings about the sunset

and how it affected Stafford. The transitions are connected, but not as organized as the

previous stanza.

In the final draft, Stafford focuses these ideas, cutting Smitty Baker and the company

house out, and develops the sunset. The final draft of Level Light is much more organized

and formal, in its ideas and in form.

- / - / - / - /
Sometimes the light when evening fails
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/ - / / / - - /
stains all haystacked country and hills,
/ - / / - / - /
runs the cornrows and clasps the barn
- - / - / - - / - /
with that kind of color escaped from corn
- / - - / - / - /
that brings to autumn the winter word
- / - / - / - /
a level shaft that tells the world:
- - / / / - / - / /
It is too late now for earlier ways;
- / - / - / / - /
now there are only some other ways,
- / - / / - / / /
and only one way to find themfail.
- / / / - / - /
In one stride night then takes the hill.

The non-italicized sections are mostly iambic tetrameter, with a couple deviations

within the lines. The only line in the non-italicized sections that isnt iambic tetrameter is

line four, which is mainly iambic pentameter. The italicized tercet is very irregular. The

first line has five beats, and the other two have four beats with an extra beat at the end of

each line. This explains why the italicized section reads much less fluidly than the rest of

the poem. The irregular meter also sets this section apart further from the rest of the poem,

making these few lines seem more like an omniscient voice speaking, rather than Stafford.

Perhaps this is the world speaking, warning the plants and animals that winter is coming.

Stafford seems to be personifying the natural instinct living things have that tells them to

hunker down and prepare for winter.

Staffords final draft of Level Light focuses on the natural, never-ending cycles that

govern the planet. The first cycle he introduces is one we experience every daythe shift

from day to night and night to day. He opens the poem with the line Sometimes the light

when evening fails (l. 1) and ends the poem with the line In one stride night then takes
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the hill (l. 10), creating a frame for the story hes telling. Stafford personifies day and night

as soldiers fighting a battle. In the first line, the light from the sun makes one last stand as it

slips under the horizon, fighting for a couple more moments before the world goes dark.

The light succeeds when evening fails (l. 1) and stains all haystacked country and hills

(l. 2) creating a beautiful moment where the sun seems to sit on the edge of the horizon,

level with the cornfields. The day can only hold on for so long, though, and at the end of the

poem, night then takes the hill plunging the cornfields into darkness. To use a clich,

night has won the battle, but not the war. Night will have its turn to rule, but in a couple of

hours, day will win the next battle. Its a continuous cycle.

The other cycle Stafford describes is the shift from season to season. The poem is set

in early fall, maybe September. Stafford mentions that the light runs the cornrows (l. 3)

and brings to autumn the winter word (l. 5)since the corn has yet to be harvested, it

couldnt be later than mid September, and his phrase in line five places the time firmly in

fall. The kind of sunset he describes could only happen in fall. As winter approaches, the

days grow shorter and shorter and sunsets seem to last only a brief moment. This is one of

those sunsetsits a flash of light, like a firework.

The italicized lines are the worlds warning that winter is coming. In the context of

harvesting, it is too late now for earlier ways (l. 7) suggest it is too late to plant, and now

there are only some other ways (l. 8) suggests now there is only time to harvest and

prepare for winter. The last italicized line and only one way to find themfail seems

harsh when its first read (l. 9). As humans, we think negatively of failure. If this line is

thought of in terms of harvesting, its very negative. Failed crops mean people will starve

once winter hits. But Stafford isnt talking only about crops failing in this linehes talking
Ladwig 11

about the natural cycle of summer, fall, winter, and spring. As fall begins, the leaves on

trees start dying, but we dont think of this negatively because the process is so beautiful.

As fall progresses, the process is less and less beautifulthe leaves turn brown and fall,

and the weather gets colder. When he uses the word fail, Stafford is talking about nature

failing and dying. But its not really failureall plant life will resume once winter gives

way and spring takes its turn.

Staffords use of the word winter goes beyond just the season, though. In her book

Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford, Judith Kitchen addresses Staffords

word usage. Throughout his poems, certain words mean more than just their textbook

definition. Kitchen states that Stafford built a language, or linking vocabulary, through

which to enter his imaginative spaces (102). For Kitchen, winter is the snowy interior

where fear and cold are inseparable and beyond winter lies the cold territory of the

unknown and unknowable (102). With this deeper meaning for the word winter, the poem

gains a darker significance. We no longer just think of the sunset as something pretty to

observe, but as some unknown part of nature we could never understandit is unknown.

The short length of the poem parallels the hasty movement of the sun. Stafford

doesnt go into much detail describing the scenehe chooses his words carefully to convey

the situation as quickly and efficiently as possible. The scene is set in the first two lines: the

time is twilight and the place is the countryside. In line one, Stafford sets up conflict

between the day and the night. In lines two, three, and four, the reader is given color:

haystacked, cornrows, and with that kind of color escaped from corn all describe a

bright yellow. Stafford introduces a new conflict in line five with the changing in the

seasons and builds on and resolves it in the three italicized lines. The conflict created in
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line one is resolved in the last line. Even though the lines are short, making the reader read

slowly, the poem is over quickly. The brevity of Level Light mimics the brief sunset and

allows the reader to experience the few beautiful moments Stafford based the poem on.

Staffords choice to shorten Level Light is what Alberta Turner would call a

surprise clich. In her essay, William Stafford and the Surprise Clich, Turner argues that

Stafford uses clich, but in a way that draws attention to the clich as clich (Turner 132).

Stafford surprises the reader by using a familiar phrase in an unusual context, in an

expected context but in such a way that the meaning becomes ironic, or by changing the

phrase just enough so the expected words become even more applicable than they would

have been before the change (Turner 132). In the case of Level Light, Stafford is

surprising the reader by writing about sunsets in an unusual context. Many people have

written about the amazing colors a sunset can produce: red, yellow, orange, purple, and

pink. Stafford chooses to use only one color to describe his sunset: yellow. He also

compares the color created to things most people dont normally compare the sun to: that

kind of color escaped from corn (l. 4). He also doesnt use the poem to talk about the

sunsets beauty and glory in the natural world at its ability to create something so

magnificent, like many other writers have done before. Stafford uses the sunset to talk

about the natural cycles that govern the earth. The length and simplicity of Level Light

defies stereotypical sunset poems.

By tracking Staffords poem Level Light through its draft process, we can discover

more about how he went through the writing process. The ideas described in Writing the

Australian Crawl are also much more evident when looking at the drafts and revisions

Stafford had of his poems. Stafford didnt want to hinder his poetry by forcing a poem into a
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mold that didnt fit. By allowing himself to discover what he wanted to write about as he

wrote a poem, his poetry became more fluid.



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Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960s.

London: Associated University Press, 1979. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. Theres a Certain Slant of Light. Poetry Foundation. Web. 12 November

2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174992>

Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State

University Press, 1999. Print.

Stafford, William. 20 March 1955. William Stafford Archives.org. Web. 29 September 2015.

< http://williamstaffordarchives.org/poem/30/>

---. Level Light. William Stafford Archives.org. Web. 29 September 2015.

<http://williamstaffordarchives.org/poem/30/>

---. Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writers Vocation. Ann Arbor: University of

Michigan Press, 1978. Print.

Stitt, Peter. William Stafford and the Wilderness Quest. On William Stafford: The Worth of

Local Things. Ed. Tom Andrews. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. 165-

202. Print.

Turner, Alberta. William Stafford and the Surprise Clich. On William Stafford: The Worth

of Local Things. Ed. Tom Andrews. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

132-137. Print.


Ladwig 15

Level Light: First Draft

When I knew him Smitty Baker looked like some hellbent
motorcycle rider. Remember the gray company house
where the family of musicians and intellectuals lived, out in
the knee high saw grass?

Why did we want to stilt and yellow-stare
parts of counties west of here?
Going through them was being away from home
and stopping was a picnic or a flat tire.
light when
4 w ith a kind
1 Sometimes the shadow where evening fails
of a color
ing
escaped
from corn 2 stains all haystacked country, and hills;
3 runs the cornrows and clasps the barn.
thing
5 Then I am with any shadowed and feared.
may be villain
But [If] you [are] barred and a terror to me
a
I come part way, carrying love.
Overwhelmed, I see leveled shafts on the world
but they broke through my no, and found their weekend goal.
orange with its hope, and spent for corn


Level Light: Final Copy

Sometimes the light when evening fails
stains all haystacked country and hills,
runs the cornrows and clasps the barn
with that kind of color escaped from corn
that brings to autumn the winter word
a level shaft that tells the world:

It is too late now for earlier ways;
now there are only some other ways,
and only one way to find themfail.

In one stride night then takes the hill.