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An Examination of Immanentism in William Stafford’s Work as an Ontological Model for

Navigating an Individualist and Modernist World


Arich Herrmann

A common theme in William Stafford’s work is human consciousness adapting to the

models provided by natural landscapes. Stafford’s work does this through interactions with

“alive” landscapes and is similar to Robert Bly’s poetry which focuses on “break[ing]through

into the interpenetrating energies of psyche and landscape” (Altieri 85). This interaction is

commonly shown through prehension—a break away from rationalism and empiricism—and

favors a connection between oneself, body, and the earth attained through touch and listening.

Stafford’s suite of four poems “Ways to Live” examines this idea:

1. India
In India in their lives they happen
again and again, being people or
animals. And if you live well
your next time could be even better.

That’s why they often look into your eyes


and you know some far-off story
with them and you in it, and some
animal waiting over at the side.

Who would want to happen just once?


It’s too abrupt that way, and
when you’re wrong, it’s too late
to go back—you’ve done it forever.

And you can’t have that soft look when you


pass, the way they do it in India (TWIS 39).

In the first stanza, Stafford presents the idea of reincarnation where, “In India their lives

they happen / again and again” and actions in this life influence what people return as when

reincarnated, “And if you live well / your next time could be even better.” Stafford then sets a

distinction between “they” being people from India and “you” being perhaps a person from the
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West where the idea of reincarnation is not a commonly held belief. This distinction is reinforced

in the closing lines “And you can’t have that soft look when you / pass, the way they do it in

India.” In the second stanza perhaps, Stafford is talking about death when he mentions the “far-

off story” and “the animal waiting over at the side” is possibly what “you” will be reincarnated

as. Stafford carries this idea into the third stanza where he appears to be wistful toward the idea

of reincarnation “Who would want to happen just once?” but he is unable to accept the idea “you

can’t have that soft look when you / pass, the way they do it in India.” Perhaps unable to accept

the idea of reincarnation as an ontological model, Stafford presents the idea of globalism in the

second poem in “Ways to Live:”

2. Having It Be Tomorrow
Day, holding its lantern before it,
moves over the whole earth slowly
to brighten that edge and push it westward.
Shepherds on upland pastures begin fires
for breakfast, beads of light that extend
miles of horizon. Then it’s noon and
coasting toward a new tomorrow.

If you’re in on that secret, a new land


will come every time the sun goes
climbing over it, and the welcome of children
will remain every day new in your heart.
Those around you don’t have it new,
and they shake their heads turning gray every
morning when the sun comes up. And you laugh.

Stafford makes nature a consciously active force by giving “Day” agency where it

“hold[s] its lantern before it, moves over the whole earth slowly.” People on earth are presented

in an archaic and picturesque way where “Shepherds on upland pastures begin fires / for

breakfast.” This creates an idyllic scene of life where the landscape is used as a spiritual

backdrop instead of a mental backdrop typical of modernism. Stafford, then, dismisses this

idyllic scene and introduces the idea of globalism which is “coasting toward a new tomorrow”
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and it always has its eye fixed on the future. Globalism is the pervading idea of modern thought

and it is based on the idea that technological advancements will continually create a better way

of life. “If you’re in on that secret” a new and better day will arrive with each turn of the sun:

Those around you don’t have it new,


and they shake their heads turning gray every
morning when the sun comes up. And you laugh.

This creates a picture of those who are not part of globalization. Instead of living and

chasing immortality through a continually advancing technological and modern world where,

“Those around you who don’t have it new,” are stuck in the past, perhaps the archaic times when

it was typical for shepherds to tend to sheep and sleep around campfires. The shepherds are able

to do nothing but move toward death with “their head[s] turning gray every / morning when the

sun comes up.” The modernist focused on globalism might say these shepherds are foolish for

choosing this ontological existence and response to such a choice with a “laugh.” Stafford

elaborates on the idea of death and aging in the third poem in “Ways to Live:”

3. Being Nice and Old


After their jobs are done old people
cackle together. They look back and shiver
all of that was so dizzying when it happened;
and now if there is any light at all it
knows how to rest on the faces of friends.
And any people you don’t like, you just turn
the page a little more and wait while they
find out what time is and begin to bend
lower; or you can just turn away and
let them drop off the edge of the world.

Unlike the second suite which ends with a “laugh,” this suite starts with “old people

cackl[ing] together” which has the connotation of a stronger, heartfelt laugh. Perhaps they are

cackling at how carried away they were with living in a modernist and globalist world, and upon

reaching their sunset years where the sun will soon no longer rise for them they look back “and
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shiver” at the idea of continual expansion and achieving immortality through the advancement of

technology as nothing more than a “dizzying” and false ontological template. Stafford then

reintroduces the “beads of light that extend / miles of the horizon,” a possible reference to

modernism and globalism which is always looking over the horizon toward a new future, as

“light” that “knows how to rest on the faces of friends.” Perhaps this is an allusion to Stafford’s

poem “Earth Dweller” which closes with the lines “The world speaks everything to us. / It is our

only friend” and presents the idea of immanentism which is the focus of the fourth poem in

“Ways to Live:”

4. Good Ways to Live


At night outside it all moves or
almost moves—trees, grass,
touches of wind. The room you have
in the world is ready to change.
Clouds parade by, and stars in their
configurations. Birds from far touch the fabric around them—you can
feel their wings move. Somewhere under
the earth it waits, that emanation
of all things. It breathes. It pulls you
slowly out through doors or windows
and you spread in the thin halo of night mist.

As a title for the fourth suite, “Good Ways to Live” alludes to the idea of using something

higher than us, perhaps an idea, as a model for human consciousness. This idea is reintroduced

by the line “The room you have in the world is ready to change” where Stafford posits an

alternative to individualism and modernism: immanentism. Charles Altieri, a professor of

English at the University of California, Berkeley, presents immanentism in his book Enlarging

the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960s as the idea that the earth and

everything in it is alive and interconnected. Stafford is a member of the category of poets Robert

Kern describes in his review of Enlarging the Temple : New Directions in American Poetry

During the 1960s where Kern critiques and restates immanentism as:
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the change from symbolist to immanentist modes of poetic thought [that] constitutes a

….historical pattern or context in which a fairly diverse group of poets can be accurately located,

….and the other is that the poets themselves have indeed worked out, no matter how consciously

….or systematically, a coherent poetics of their own as an alternative to modernism” (288).

Immanentism exhibits an “alive” world where “it all moves” and there is an intrinsic

connection where “birds from far touch the fabric around them” that is revealed through

prehension, “—you can / feel their wings move.” Stafford gives the world an active agency:

Somewhere under
the earth it waits, that emanation
of all things. It breathes.

An immanentist world is a world where the earth exists as an organism: living, breathing,

and adapting to its environment. Unlike individualism where the ideal person functions as an

island, Stafford leans toward immanentism as an ontological template. In this school of thought,

people are also part of the world and there is “a sense of interdependence [between] all things

alive” (Altieri 88). Stafford writes:

It pulls you
slowly out through doors or windows
and you spread in the thin halo of night mist.

The immanentist world has further agency and uses this agency to act on “you,” drawing

or pulling “you” out of an individualist room through “doors or windows” to a world where as

Altieri puts it, “The ideal is to refute Freud and have art without neurosis, to have an art, in fact,

which can cure and not displace man’s most basic alienations” (Altieri 63).

With the immanentist world established as an alive entity, Stafford’s uses this world as an

ontological template observed through prehension, touch, and hands as exhibited in “Annals of

Tai Chi: ‘Push Hands:’”


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In this long routine “Push hands,”


one recognizes force and yields, the
slides, again, again, endlessly like water,
what goes away, what follows, aggressive
courtesy till force must always lose,
lost in the seethe and retreat of ocean.

So does the sail fill, and air come


just so, because of what’s gone, “Yes”
in all things, “Yes come in if you
insist,” and thus conducted find a way
out, yin following and becoming
by a beautiful absence in its partner yang.

This poem is a contrast to the poet Robert Lowell’s idea of touch which is based on

people using their will and hands to shape the world around them and they are “only in touch

with what [they] touch without exploring just what the mysteries of touch entail” when touch can

be used as a conduit for a direct perception of the world (Altieri 93). Here “one recognizes force

and yields” and there is a reversal of roles between oneself and the world where the world is

given a greater agency than oneself. This agency can then be used, instead of as an

individualistic model of thought derived from “trusting public rational models,” as a model of

thought derived from the world’s agency (Altieri 85). This ontological existence is achieved

through a turning inward where one “like water” surrenders oneself to a force greater than

oneself and loses oneself in the “seethe and retreat of the ocean.” Stafford writes that a turning

inward and accepting all things leads to a turning outward:

“Yes, come in if you


insist,” and thus conducted find a way
out, yin following and becoming
by a beautiful absence its partner yang.
This turning inward and valuing the agency of the world as above the agency of people

is an example of how Altieri says that immanentist poetry “forces one beyond imagination to

direct perception, to the cutting edge where man and the world are in perpetual interchange”
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(Altieri 93). Altieri claims this idea is a strong break away from individualism and offers an

alternative to humanism where human agency “collapses back to the subjective

understand[ing]—tries to make it by asserting the self as character” (Altieri 101.) This alternative

places a higher value on the world than on oneself, and one takes on a subservient role toward

the world, listening to the natural rhythms of the body which allows one to “participate in

experience, not to control it” (Altieri 98). In Stafford’s work, listening and touch are a way of

directly connecting with the world on an intimate level that produces direct sensory input unlike

sight which produces images or an outward connection to the immediate world as exhibited in

“Touches:”

Late you can hear the stars. And beyond them


some kind of quiet other than silence, a deepness
the miles make, the way canyons
hold their miles back: you are in the earth and
it guides you; out where the sun comes
it is the precious world.

There are stones too quiet for these days,


old ones that belong in the earlier mountains.
You put a hand out in the dark of a cave and
the wall waits for your fingers. Cold, that stone
tells you all of the years that passed without knowing.
You think of caves held in the earth, no mouth,
no light. Down there the years have lost their way.
Under your hand it all steadies,
is the world under your hand.

The opening line “Late you can hear the stars” presents a sense of prehension—sound is unable

to travel through space because there are no atoms or molecules for it to travel across—where

one is connected to the stars in a way beyond rationalistic modes of thought. This presents

listening as a prehenstic universal and Altieri states, that for the immanentist poet “Universals

that matter are not conceptual structures but energies recurring in numinous moments” (42). This
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sense of prehension is reinforced by the following lines where Stafford expounds on the power

of listening, and he once again elaborates on using the earth as an ontological template:

some kind of quiet other than silence, a deepness


the miles make, the way canyons
hold their miles back: you are in the earth and
it guides you; out where the sun comes
it is the precious world.

Stafford shows a “kind of quiet other than silence,” achieved through listening that

presents an inward connection to the earth. Stafford’s poem “Touches,” is similar to Altieri’s

analysis of Robert Bly’s poem “Looking Into a Face:”

Conversation brings us so close! Opening


The surfs of the body,
Bringing fish up near the sun,
And stiffening the backbones of the sea!

I have wandered in a face, for hours,


Passing through dark fires.
I have risen to a body
Not yet born,
Existing like a light around the body,
Through which the body moves like a sliding moon (The Light 53).

which combines as Altieri states, “Psychic depth and cosmic force, the Romantic dream of the

redeemed human body and the contemporary quest for a vision of cosmic harmony based on

natural law” (88). Bly uses conversation as a means of, as Altieri states, “slip[ping] inward

before [Bly] asks the same slip of the reader, and the sustained analogy then gives depth and a

sense of secure grounding to the moment of insight” (88). In Stafford’s poem, one is asked to

slip into the earth which is then used as an ontological template that “guides you” back to the

surface of the earth “out where the sun comes” where in a moment of insight one sees “it is [a]

precious world.” In the second stanza, Stafford shows a connection to the earth achieved through

touch:
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There are stones too quiet for these days,


old ones that belong in the earlier mountains.
You put a hand out in the dark of a cave and
the wall waits for your fingers. Cold, that stone
tells you all of the years that passed without knowing.
You think of caves held in the earth, no mouth,
no light. Down there the years have lost their way.
Under your hand it all steadies,
is the world under your hand.

Here the world is given agency that one connects to through touch and once again there is

a reversal of roles between oneself and the world. The world is given a greater agency than

oneself and one is placed into the role of a listener:

You put a hand out in the dark of a cave and


the wall waits for your fingers. Cold, that stone
tells you all of the years that passed without knowing.
Under your hand it all steadies,
is the world under your hand.

The last two lines highlight the power of the hand and its ability to control. They ask the

question: should we use this power to control nature because we can? Ian McHarg “an emeritus

professor at the University of Pennsylvania [who] founded the university’s department of

landscape architecture and regional planning…and ran it for three decades” (Revkin 1) while

also professing a form of ecological architecture that minimized the impact of human

construction on the environment, posits his position, in Stafford’s omnibus review “At Home on

Earth” where Stafford shares his thoughts on books that examine humans’ impact on the

environment. McHarg’s statement focuses on modernism’s expansion which leads to cities that

act as islands separated from the earth’s landscapes, much like one who uses individualism as an

ontological template, and McHarg states:

If we lower the eyes from the wonderful, strident but innocent assertions of man’s supremacy,

….we can find another tradition, more pervasive than the island monuments, little responsive to
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….the grand procession of architectural styles. This is the vernacular tradition. . . . The farmer is

….the prototype. He prospers only insofar as he understands the land and by his management

….maintains its beauty. (At Home 491)

This situation can be applied to all people besides the farmer. While most people do not

live in a direct and visible connection with the earth as the farmer who raises crops does,

everyone is affected by the environment—especially as the debate over the connection between

human activities and global warming heats up—and is in some way impacted by rising sea

levels, extreme weather shifts, and water contamination. These are all side effects of living in a

modernist world. While the question—should one use this power to control nature because one

can—remains, the more pressing question is: how much is one willing to suffer to maintain one’s

dominion over nature?

According to Stafford’s work, if one uses the earth as an ontological template combined

with the idea of immanentism, it will reveal the “sense of interdependence [between] all things

alive” (Altieri 88). When this prehensile sense of the intrinsic connection between everything is

acknowledged one will no longer attempt to function as an island as one would when viewing the

world through an individualist and modernist lens.


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Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. Enlarging The Temple. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980. Print

Bly, Robert.

--. “Looking into a Face” The Light Around The Body: Poems by Robert Bly. New York: Harper

& Row, 1967. Print.

Kern, Robert. “Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960s by

Charles Altieri.” Criticism, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 287-293. Accessed 26 April 2018

http://www.jstor.org/stable/23103236

Revkin, Andrew C. “Ian McHarg, 80, Architect Who Valued a Site’s Natural Features.” The New

York Times 12 Mar. 2001 The New York Times 20 May 2018.

Stafford, William.

---. “Annals of Tai Chi: ‘Push Hands.’” The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems by William

Stafford. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1999. Print.

---. “At Home on Earth.” The Hudson Review. vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 481-491.

http://www.jstor.org/stable/3849057 Accessed 26 April 2018

---. “Earth Dweller.” The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems by William Stafford. Minneapolis:

Graywolf Press, 1999. Print.


---. “In Response to a Question.” The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems by William Stafford.

Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1999. Print.

---. “Touches.” Someday, Maybe. New York: Harper and Row, 1973. Print

---. “Ways to Live.” The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems by William Stafford. Minneapolis:

Graywolf Press, 1999. Print.