Ways to Live by William Stafford

Ways to Live
by William Stafford

Table of Contents
1. Ways to Live: Introduction
2. Ways to Live: Text of the Poem
3. Ways to Live: William Stafford Biography
4. Ways to Live: Summary

5. Ways to Live: Themes
6. Ways to Live: Style
7. Ways to Live: Historical Context
8. Ways to Live: Critical Overview
Ways to Live: Essays and Criticism
¨ This Poem Makes Death Believable
¨ Use of Metaphors For Advice on How to Live
¨ Meditations on Life
10. Ways to Live: Topics for Further Study
11. Ways to Live: Media Adaptations
12. Ways to Live: What Do I Read Next?
13. Ways to Live: Bibliography and Further Reading
14. Ways to Live: Pictures
15. Copyright
Ways to Live: Introduction
“Ways to Live” was written from July 19 through 21 of 1993, just over a month before William Stafford’s
death in August of that year. Stafford was well known as a hard worker and diligent poet, often producing a
poem a day. This poem comes from his book The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems, in a section containing
poems that Stafford wrote in his final days that is titled “There’s a Thread You Follow.” It is a mark of
Stafford’s dedication to poetry that this collection contains a poem written on the morning of his death at age
Stafford’s method of producing “Ways to Live” is evident in the final product. On the one hand, it is clearly
more spontaneous and loosely knit than poems that have been worked over and revised constantly. The four
sections could almost stand as separate poems themselves and have only a thin, abstract relationship to each
other. On the other hand, Stafford shows the poetic sensibilities that developed over years of daily practice so
Ways to Live 1
that even a poem that he had no time to revise shows more clarity and coherence than another poet might get
from working and reworking a piece. This is a poem about growing old and giving up life gracefully, and it
has the authority of having been written by an expert on the subject, a revered wordsmith at the very end of
his life.
Ways to Live: Text of the Poem
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 5
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 10
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.
2. Having It Be Tomorrow
Day, holding its lantern before it, 15
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 20
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. 25
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.
3. Being Nice and Old
After their jobs are done old people
cackle together. They look back and shiver, 30
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 35
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.
4. Good Ways to Live
At night outside it all moves or
almost moves—trees, grass, 40
touches of wind. The room you have
in the world is ready to change.
Clouds parade by, and stars in their
Ways to Live: Introduction 2
configurations. Birds from far
touch the fabric around them—you can 45
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. 50
Ways to Live: William Stafford Biography
William Stafford was born in 1914 in Hutchinson, Kansas. His parents instilled in him moral values and a
decidedly nonconformist, independent view of the world. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the
family moved frequently within Kansas. Stafford worked constantly, delivering papers, harvesting beets, or
apprenticing as an electrician’s assistant. He attended junior college and then the University of Kansas, where
he received a bachelor’s degree in 1937. When America entered World War II in 1941, Stafford registered as
a conscientious objector. In place of military service, he worked in government camps in a program of
“alternative service under civilian direction.” Throughout the war, he was sent to California, Illinois, and
Arkansas, where he was involved in soil conservation projects and battling forest fires. The experience of
standing up for his pacifist beliefs during a war that was widely supported made Stafford comfortable with
following his own ideas. It also honed him as a writer; because the labor assigned to conscientious objectors
was so grueling, he was too tired to write at night, so Stafford and some of the other men in the camps would
rise before the sun to write, a practice he continued throughout his life.
During the war, Stafford met and married Dorothy Frantz, a school teacher whose father was a minister. He
returned to the University of Kansas after the war and earned a master’s degree before moving to San
Francisco to work for Church World Services, a relief agency. His memoir about life in the conscientious
objector camps, Down in My Heart, was published in 1947. He wrote constantly and had several poems
published, and then in 1948, he accepted a teaching position at Lewis and Clark college in Portland, Oregon,
with which he was affiliated off and on for the rest of his life.
During the first years of the 1950s, he attended the writing program at the University of Iowa, receiving a
Ph.D. in 1954. It was not until 1960, when he was forty-six, that Stafford published his first book of poetry
with a small press in southern California, selling a few hundred copies. It was his second book, Traveling
Through the Dark, that made Stafford a major figure on the poetry scene. That book won the National Book
Award for 1963. The following year, Stafford won the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of
America, and two years later, he received a Guggenheim fellowship. Stafford continually wrote and published
and kept on teaching in Portland. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the generation that opposed the war in
Vietnam embraced Stafford’s meditative, pacifist beliefs, and he was frequently invited to be a guest speaker
at college campuses around the country. Stafford also toured on behalf of the U.S. Information Agency to
Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh in 1972. Stafford retired from teaching in 1980 but
continued to write throughout the rest of his life. “Ways to Live” was written within months of his death in
Ways to Live: Summary
Lines 1–4
The first section of “Ways to Live” is subtitled “India.” The most common religion in India, Hinduism,
holds firm to the belief that all souls are returned to Earth in new bodies after their deaths— the doctrine of
“transmigration” or “reincarnation.” The first line of this poem mirrors the circular motion of reincarnation
with repetition, using “in” twice (actually, three times, since the sound is part of “India”) and putting “they”
and “their” close together. This same effect occurs in the second line with “again and again.” This stanza
Ways to Live: Text of the Poem 3
ends with an optimistic note, of life going from “well” to “better,” with no mention at all of a poorly lived
life. This optimism is offered to the reader, since the poem uses the words “you” and “your” to describe this
better life.
Lines 5–8
In the second stanza, the distinction between those who believe in reincarnation and those who do not,
between “them” and “you,” is made clearer. “They,” the people from India, are the ones who remember
past lives, while Western thinkers, even the ones who were part of those past lives, do not remember them.
This leads to the odd situation described in the second stanza: an Indian, looking into the eyes of a Westerner
who does not understand reincarnation, can see a scene from another life, “some far-off story.” The Western
person will not remember it. Oddly, the scene might involve previous incarnations of both participants. Even
though they might be from different parts of the world in this life, the poem is indicating that they were both
acquainted in a past life.
Line 8 adds an unusual twist to the image of two people meeting and only one knowing that they have met in
a previous life: Stafford adds “some / animal waiting over at the side.” There is no explanation for this detail,
but the fact that animals are beyond philosophical systems makes this one an appropriate way of bridging the
differences between Eastern and Western philosophies.
Lines 9–12
In the third stanza, Stafford extols the benefits of reincarnation, phrasing it in terms of opportunity to make up
for past mistakes. When life happens “just once,” he says, one finds out too late how to avoid things that go
wrong. There is a permanence to action that the poem presents as being almost too frightening to think about,
making reincarnation seem a much more comforting, preferred system of belief. The rhetorical question at the
start of this stanza, in line 9, serves to make readers agree with the narrative point of view, making it seem
ridiculous to believe in anything except reincarnation.
Lines 13–14
In the short couplet that ends this section, there are two words emphasized. The first is the word “soft,” which
is used to sum up the poem’s depiction of the way reincarnationists view the world, capturing its gentle and
forgiving nature. The second most important word is the last word in this section, “India.” Stafford uses this
word to refer to the religious theory of reincarnation because it gives the theory a human presence, not a
familiar one, but an exotic one, adding an element of mystery and respect that would be missing if he only
talked about the abstract concept.
Lines 15–21
The second section of the poem, called “Having It Be Tomorrow,” discusses the movement of the sun across
the face of the earth. It starts with sunlight represented as the light of a lantern that precedes day. The poem
views the earth from far above, tracking the movement of sunlight as it creeps across the face of the globe, but
in lines 18 and 19 it focuses closely enough on worldly matters not only to identify shepherds but to identify
their purpose for lighting fires before sunrise, for making their breakfast. Line 20 has an abrupt time shift:
whereas this stanza tracks the slowly rising sun for five lines, there is a sudden jolt when the poem announces,
“then it’s noon.” After noon, the height of the sun’s climb, Stafford does not view the sun in terms of setting
but as starting the process that will lead to the sunrise the next day. This mirrors the optimism of the first
stanza, which only presented good and better lives and did not raise any potentially negative aspects.
Lines 22–28
Stafford presents the motion of the sun as a “secret,” because most people fail to think of it in the way that he
presents it, as a “new land” that arrives over and over again every time a new day begins. For those who look
at it this way, the poem promises a continuously new perspective, described here with the “welcome of
children” that can be felt constantly in the heart. In the last half of this stanza, he contrasts those who have
Ways to Live: Summary 4
this ever-renewing perspective with those who lack it. Those people are burdened with negativity—they shake
their heads—and age takes its toll on them, turning their hair gray. Although there is opposition between the
two ways of viewing things, Stafford does not present it as a bitter contest. The side that he advocates as being
the correct view, the one that is always renewed, sees the bitterness of the other side and laughs.
Lines 29–38
The third section of the poem is called “Being Nice and Old.” It begins by mentioning a time when old
people can look back over their lives. The phrase “after their jobs are done” generally means retirement, in a
culture that looks at a person in terms of employment, but the poem implies that it means something more
general, referring not just to paying jobs but to responsibilities and personal duties. The previous two stanzas
focused, first of all, on making clear distinctions between Westerners and Easterners, and then on the
distinction between optimists about the future and those who see no reason for optimism. This stanza has a
central distinction between friends and “people you don’t like.” The friends, lines 32–33 explain, will be lit
by memories of “all that was so dizzying when it happened.” The poem does not advise bitterness toward
enemies, explaining that they will suffer by becoming older and that one can eventually just ignore them until
they fall away from notice (“drop off the edge of the world”).
Lines 39–50
“Good Ways to Live” is the fourth and final section of the poem. It is a twelve-line stanza that shows the
author’s awareness and acceptance of his impending death. Nature is presented as a continuum of life. The
trees and grass and clouds are moved by the wind. Birds touch the sky, which is seen as a continuous fabric
that reaches down to the ground, so that humans on the ground can feel the effect of their flapping. For a short
while, in lines 46–48, the poem hints that the life force that runs through all of these things might be dark and
sinister: it exists under ground and reaches out to pull people to their deaths. The last line, though, brings the
focus of the poem back to the discussion of reincarnation at the beginning. Death is presented as a release that
puts the human spirit back into the same atmosphere that “Good Ways to Live” presents as being alive,
implying that the spirit will live again in the things of nature. The use of the word “halo” in line 50 hints at a
beautification of the spirit as it becomes angelic in death.
Ways to Live: Themes
In this poem, Stafford talks about reincarnation as a second chance to correct the things that were done wrong
in this life. His version of this religious belief might be a little oversimplified, in that he presents this doctrine
as if it means that one will lead the same life, over and over, with added understanding of what was done right
and wrong each time before. If it were that simple, then reincarnation really would be a matter of steering
around troubles that one can anticipate coming. True Indian beliefs about reincarnation are, of course, much
more complicated, with the spirit ending up in worse circumstances or better circumstances, depending on the
karma gained in subsequent lives. In Eastern religions, one’s chances with reincarnation are more uncertain
than Stafford presents them here, but the idea of reincarnation does help this poem make a point about the
abruptness of life, as it is understood by Western thinkers.
By personifying the idea of reincarnation, Stafford is able to present a small drama between a stereotypical
Indian character, called “them” in the first section of the poem, and a stereotypical Westerner, referred to as
“you.” “They” have the power to look into “your” eye and see a scene from the past involving both
participants. This concept of reincarnation has more poetic than religious significance, but, as a poetic
situation, it does provide a powerful image. Stafford seems to understand that the mystical powers that he
attributes to Indians are exaggerated, given the way that he says, at the end of the first section, “the way they
do it in India.” The tone of this line suggests a winking selfmockery, to suggest that he is fully aware that the
Indian belief in reincarnation does not operate in the way he has presented.
Ways to Live: Themes 5
In the last section of the poem, Stafford presents a more spiritual view of reincarnation, as opposed to the
exaggeration in the first section. The poem’s last line has a dying person “spread into the thin halo of night
mist”: the person is joined with nature, which the earlier lines in section 4 show to be alive, but is not
concerned with past lives and previous episodes that were lived between strangers hundreds of years earlier.
The metaphor of the sun circling the earth in the second section of the poem is one that radiates a sense of
hopefulness. As is often the case, sunlight is used to represent security and knowledge, as a result of the way it
overcomes the uncertain shadows of night. Stafford refers to the moments before sunlight arrives, providing
readers with a striking visual image of darkened hills lit sporadically with campfires, anticipating the light and
heat that will soon blanket the land. As the sun rises over the earth, it is personified, compared to a person
lighting a dark place with a lantern, implying that the rising sun is on a mission to bring light.
Most of the first stanza of “Having It Be Tomorrow” focuses on the rising sun, which is almost a universal
symbol of hope. When the focus shifts, late in that stanza, to the afternoon sun, there is more than an abrupt
time change: the symbolic meaning of the afternoon sun is different. If the sun is charging toward light in the
morning, in the afternoon it is charging toward the darkness of night. That is not the way this poem presents it,
however; instead, Stafford willfully ignores the symbolic implications of the coming night and views that sun
after its zenith as “coasting toward a new tomorrow.”
The second stanza of section 2 presents hope as a “secret,” one that most people are not aware of. Stafford
makes this hope attractive by presenting the benefits that it offers: the land is always new, and “the welcome
of children / will remain every day in your heart.” Those without hope still have the sun come up upon them
every morning, but they do not embrace it, instead facing it with a negative shake of the head. The person
with hope faces each new day with a laugh.
This poem is about spiritual maturity, but it approaches such maturity through the most familiar sense of the
word, that of human aging. The third section of the poem, “Being Nice and Old,” uses the word “nice”
ironically, to play off expectations that people have about elderly people. There is, in fact, nothing particularly
“nice” in the traditional sense about the vision of old age presented here. Instead, Stafford defines what he
thinks is nice about growing old. Whereas traditional concepts of maturity tend to discourage looking back at
one’s life as a kind of weakness, “living in the past,” this poem shows a light from the past events that shines
on the faces of one’s friends. Also, maturity often is taken to include a sort of benign acceptance of those
whom one has had trouble with in the past. Stafford’s version does include a peace with one’s former
enemies, but this peace is not reached through a spirit of charity. Characters in this poem reach maturity when
they are able to turn away from those whom they do not like. The enemies, he assures readers, will feel the
effects of old age, and because they will suffer in this way, there is no reason for the individual to wish ill
upon them. Even if they are not punished by old age, the poem still advises readers to ignore those whom they
do not like, and as the reader ages, the others will “drop off the face of the earth.” Although the poem does
not equate maturity with being charitable, the end result is the same: anger and hatred are ignored, and peace
is gained.
The end of this poem describes a mystical harmony of nature, with the actions of all things affecting others.
The phrase “it all moves or / almost moves” implies an interconnectedness that most people do not see when
they look at the world. Stafford gives examples of trees and grass moved by the wind, and, high above, clouds
moved by a wind that cannot be felt on the ground. The reference to stars indicates a heightened sense of
awareness, since the naked eye cannot generally observe such motion. All of these motions, from the obvious
to the sublime, are catalogued under the heading of “Good Ways to Live.”
Ways to Live: Themes 6
In the middle of the final section, Stafford shifts his focus from things that can be observed visually to things
that are connected by touch. The sky is not seen as something far away but as a “fabric” that responds to the
motion of birds flying by, so that a person on the ground can feel the ripples made by their wings. By pointing
out the harmony between the sky and the ground, Stafford brings together all of nature.
In the end, the poem also brings the supernatural into the equation. Although it had previously denied that
Western thinkers—“you”—would have the sensitivity to understand the afterlife, the final lines describe the
experience of death as being joined with the other aspects of nature that have already been joined together.
Death, “that emanation of all things,” rises up from under ground and pulls the essence of the person into the
air, turning life into a night mist. The reincarnation explored in the first section is achieved in a more
meaningful way than just repetition of past scenes; the rising sun presents the hope of bringing warmth and
light to the night mist; and the truest sign of maturity in this poem is a willingness to let go of the good and
bad things of life.
Ways to Live: Style
It is not very unusual for a poem to be broken down into numbered sections the way that “Ways to Live” is.
The most frequent observation about such poems is that each of the four segments, each of which has its own
individual title, could stand by itself as an independent poem. This may be true, but once that is established, it
helps to consider why Stafford decided to present them as one entire unit. There are similar themes that run
through all of the sections of this poem, drawing relationships between them even when the subject matter of
each might seem unrelated to the rest.
The first section, “India,” for instance, is narrowly concerned with Hindu religious beliefs, a subject that is
not discussed in the rest of the poem. In a more general sense, though, it is about what happens after death, a
subject that is implied in the second section in the sun heading toward a new tomorrow and in the fourth by
the “emanation” spreading one’s life into the halo of night mist that makes all things move. In the third
section, the Hindu seeing a “far-off story” in one’s eyes is repeated by the way old people see the light of the
past on their current friends. This third section, “Being Nice and Old,” is the part of the poem that fits least
securely with the rest because it is the only one that focuses entirely on worldly events. It comes in the right
place for such an unusual stanza: the theme of continuing life is shown in the first section and then anchored
by the second section, and, after the third section diverts slightly, the fourth section brings that theme back
This poem is addressed to a fairly specific audience, as is indicated by the frequent use of the second person,
“you.” In “India,” Stafford is quite specific about what he thinks his audience believes, defining his readers
by how they differ from “them,” who would be the people of India. He is not specifically addressing all of
the world’s population outside of India, but rather the people who do not hold the particular beliefs that he
ascribes to Indians here. Later, in the second stanza of “Having It Be Tomorrow,” his reference to “you”
allows that his reader might have the sort of insight that was only allowed “them” in the first section. The
“you” in the third section is someone that the speaker of the poem is giving advice to, explaining how to deal
with friends and family alike. In the fourth section, the reference to “you” is descriptive, showing what
happens to any person upon death.
Of course, a poem written in the second person is not limited only to the people described. The effect of
addressing readers as “you” is to establish whom the author is thinking of, but that does not mean that other
people cannot understand and appreciate the concepts being discussed. For instance, people of India are
clearly “them” in the first section, but the sentiments Stafford examines here are accessible to Indian readers.
Ways to Live: Style 7
Addressing readers as “you” does not exclude readers who are not described by a poem’s use of that
pronoun; it just gives readers a fair understanding of whom the author has in mind while writing. Readers can
then adjust their expectations and their judgments to help get a clearer sense of the points the author is trying
to make.
The “tone” of a written work is determined by the author’s attitude that the author shows toward his
audience. In “Ways to Live,” Stafford’s tone is the one that runs throughout most of his poetry: calm,
assured, and insightful. It is not too abstract or intellectual, even though the subject matter of the poem itself
has more intellectual depth than many readers are accustomed to. One reason this poem can be viewed as
welcoming the reader is its use of “you,” which serves to bring readers into the material being discussed.
Readers might not feel that Stafford actually knows them, but the use of “you” does establish a
conversational tone that tends to make people feel comfortable and to establish them as part of the discussion.
The strongest impression of this poem’s tone is one of good-natured forgiving. Emphasis is given to things
like light, laughter, and “the welcome of children” that is felt in your heart. The word “halo” in the last line
is instrumental in establishing how readers feel about the overall piece. It is a word usually used in a religious
context, but it also describes an indistinct, vague light. It is a word that evokes feelings of warmth and
spirituality, and this mood fits perfectly with the subject matter being discussed.
In order to make a greater impact on the reader’s imagination, Stafford uses personification in several places
in this poem. In several places, he talks about inanimate objects or abstract concepts as if they have human
behavior and motivations. In “Having It Be Tomorrow,” for instance, “day” is said to be holding a lantern
and consciously using that lantern to brighten the earth as it eases across the land. In “Being Nice and Old,”
the light “knows how to rest on the faces of friends.” The most striking examples of personification occur in
the last section, “Good Ways to Live.” This section starts by hinting that all of the things of the earth move
because that is what they want to do. It then goes on to describe the motion of clouds and stars across the sky
as “parading,” to give a sense of the self-assurance to their motion. The vague concept that is referred to as
“that emanation of all things” is treated like a person: it breathes, it waits, and then it moves to abduct a
person as if it knows that this is its purpose in this world.
Ways to Live: Historical Context
Written in the 1990s, when “multiculturalism” had become a common idea among academics and
intellectuals, this poem shows enough awareness about world culture to recognize that reincarnation is one of
the central tenets of the Hindu religion, which is the dominant religion of India. Still, it shows little
understanding of the details of the Hindu belief in rebirth, other than the broad idea that humans may come
back as other forms of life after they have died. William Stafford was a poet well known for his skill in
capturing the feeling of the American West, with its open plains representing both desolation and possibility,
and for understanding the American moral beliefs that his countrymen so seldom saw represented in print. To
some degree, his superficial rendering of Asian religious belief can be considered another facet of his regional
identity, since Americans are notorious throughout the world for understanding little about cultures outside of
their own.
There are over 790 million Hindus in the world. Of these, nearly 750 million reside in India, making up 80
percent of that country’s population. The roots of the Hindu religion can be traced to the year 1500 B.C.,
when it was brought into India by the Aryans, an Indo-European race of warriors that then merged with Indian
intellectualism. As such, Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions, and its ideas about the existence of
Ways to Live: Historical Context 8
an individual soul that continues after death have probably had an influence on all major religions that have
followed. It is safe to assume that, when Stafford refers to Indian religious belief in “Ways to Live,” he is
referring to the religion called Hindu by outsiders, although it is important to note that this religion’s
practitioners have no such word for their system of beliefs.
The Hindu religion centers on the belief that each individual has a soul, which is a part of Brahma, the
Supreme Soul. At death, this soul is separated from the body that it occupied, but it does not leave Earth.
Instead, it comes back to life as another living thing. What it comes back as is determined by the karma that it
has accumulated in the most recent existence. Karma comes from the degree to which one has avoided
causing injury. Those who are truly malicious are burdened with bad karma and will return the next time
around as a lower form of life, such as an animal or a member of one of the lower classes. Good karma
assures one a higher form of existence. Through eliminating passions and gaining knowledge, one can, over
the course of several lifetimes, be freed of reincarnation. For followers of the Hindu faiths, the goal is, in the
end, to be liberated from suffering and from having to be reborn, and to have one’s soul joined to the
Supreme Soul.
Ways to Live: Critical Overview
William Stafford was recognized as a unique poet, one who focused his attention on common life and moral
decisions at a time when most poetry was moving away from a general moral judgment and toward an
expression of individual perspective. Critics seldom failed to note Stafford’s kind, gentle, fatherly poetic
voice, which was perhaps a result of the fact that he was older than many of his contemporaries when he
started to gain critical attention— Stafford was forty-six years old when his first book of poetry was published.
For example, Louis Simpson, himself a respected poet, noted while reviewing Stafford’s first collection in
1961 the way that he was able to maintain a personal voice while writing about significant matters that affect
all readers. “Contrary to what many poets believe nowadays,” Simpson wrote, “it is not necessary to spill
your guts on the table in order to be ‘personal,’ nor to relate the details of your aunt’s insanity. What is
necessary is originality of imagination and at least a few ideas of your own.” These are the graces that he
found in Stafford’s work, and this assessment of Stafford stayed fairly consistent over the next thirty years.
Perhaps Stafford’s most lasting impression on critics was his independence from the poetic trends of his time.
In the 1960s, he became recognized by a small group of writers and intellectuals with his second collection
Traveling Through the Dark. His audience was impressed with his moral strength in a time of shifting moral
values. The public, divided over the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, also respected Stafford for his
personal history as a conscientious objector during World War II. At a time when he was riding high in public
esteem, though, when he could have rested on his popularity, he wrote poems that broke from the style
expected of him and took the chance of alienating fans. Gerald Burns noted, while reviewing a 1970
collection, that “Stafford is three very hard things to find in America: an adult, a poet, and an adult poet—and
he does a very hard thing in Allegiances. He drops out. He can afford to; in his case, it’s being a good
citizen.” Burns explains that the poems are dense and deliberate: “Reading them slowly is almost frightening
because you see how thoroughly they are meant.”
By the 1990s, Stafford was just as respected as he ever was, and just as prolific, still writing a poem a day and
publishing dozens each year in little magazines. Ben Howard started a review in Poetry, one of the most
influential poetry periodicals published in America, by telling his audience directly, “Schools and movements
come and go, but over the past three decades the steady, demotic voice of William Stafford has deepened
rather than changed.” Howard recognizes the fact that Stafford’s “casual tone” is frequently incongruous
with the subject matter he explored in his old age, such as death and loss of old friends. In his review, Howard
points out places in Stafford’s poetry where lines that seem intended to spread comfort and cheer to the
reader fall flat, making the intelligent optimism he was known for seem forced and unconvincing. Still, he is
Ways to Live: Critical Overview 9
unwilling to go along with other critics who do not think Stafford has the emotional depth to recognize the
negative side of life. As Howard puts it, “Stafford’s controversial ‘way of writing’ has produced its share of
ephemera, here as in his previous collections; but it has also allowed access to the ‘rich darkness’ of the
unknown and has strengthened a capacity, rare in contemporary poetry, for intuiting the miraculous.” He
could have been writing about “Ways to Live,” which was written the following year and not published until
years later, when he observed that “in the best of his new poems, a poet’s sad wisdom fuses with a child’s
sense of wonder and a grown man’s reverence for nature.”
The book in which “Ways to Live” was published, called The Way It Is, was published five years after the
poet’s death. In general, it is rare to find a reviewer willing to speak ill of the dead, especially about an author
as universally revered as Stafford. The worst that can be said about him, so soon after his death, is that his
poetry is still considered outside the mainstream, still frequently overlooked when anthologies are assembled,
and too seldom discussed along with the important poets of the twentieth century. By every indication, this is
not a reflection of the quality of his work so much as it is a sign that he made poetry look natural and easy.
Ways to Live: Essays and Criticism
This Poem Makes Death Believable
William Stafford’s poem “Ways to Live” offers readers advice about life, taking the grandest overall view of
it by looking squarely at life’s biggest challenge: how to deal with death. It does this with sober sincerity.
This is a topic open to many different opinions, but this poem leaves its readers feeling confident that it comes
from a poet who knows what he is talking about and secure in the belief that the truth the poem gives
corresponds with the way the world really is.
Part of that confidence comes from the poet’s biographical situation. Stafford wrote “Ways to Live” over the
course of three days, July 19–21 of 1993, just five weeks before his death. It is difficult to ignore the timing:
whether he was preoccupied with his approaching finale, as other poems written around the same time seem to
suggest, or whether he just knew death was lurking around the corner with the same intuition that shows the
Indians in the poem scenes from their past lives, it would be hard for any reader not to believe that Stafford
had a considerable amount of insight into what it is like to be near the end. The fact that he was seventy-nine
years old alone gives him a perspective that most of his readers will lack.
Another factor that gives readers cause to trust this poem’s insights is that it was, after all, produced by
William Stafford, whose poetic voice had been clear and honest from the start and then polished daily for
almost half a century. It is a voice that rings true to most readers, free of the bends that most people can sense
when authors condescend to literary trends. Rhetoric is the art of making things sound true whether they are
true or not. The kind of honesty that radiated from Stafford’s work, especially his later work, is almost
impossible to fake. In Stafford’s meek language, his wry wit, and his ease in discussing things of nature,
readers recognize that this is not a poet who needs to claim truths that he does not actually feel.
But these are things about the author, not the poem. If sincerity and old age alone were enough to make an
effective work of art, then anything he said would be effective. In studying Stafford’s latest works, it would
be easy to fall prey to admiration and believe that he actually could sit down with a pen at any given time and
churn out truth—he was one of the few writers who never coasted along or used the same tried-and-true verbal
tricks that served him so well over the course of decades. But there is no need simply to trust that the poem of
an honest author is true; there are aspects about “Ways to Live” that in themselves give the poem the
authority to advise readers about how to face death.
Ways to Live: Essays and Criticism 10
There is good reason to be suspicious of poems that are too loud about accepting the inevitable, that find
beauty in nature and comfort in old age. Too often, writers are able to achieve these positive outlooks only by
paying no attention to all of the unpleasant things that become associated with them. Sentimental verse shows
mighty eagles soaring and innocent bunnies hopping but has nothing to say when the eagle swoops down for
the kill. As the saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” The great and undervalued thing about “Ways to Live” is
that it is a blissful poem that does not need to hide any portion of the truth in order to maintain a convincing
balance. In a few short sections, and using an even tone, it presents a range of emotions that conflict with each
other but end up offering a wellrounded picture of the world.
For instance, the poem starts out with a section called “India,” which touches upon the subject of
reincarnation. It touches the subject, but in no way does Stafford claim any sort of expert knowledge about it.
One clue of this is the section’s title: naming it “India” is the poet’s admission that the religious belief he
describes is foreign to him, which puts him in the position of being a curious spectator, not a teacher. This
idea is made even more forcefully at the end of the section, which is emphatic about the fact that reincarnation
is a belief understood by “them,” in India, not by the poem’s speaker or his probable audience. Ameri- cans
“can’t have that soft look” that comes into the eyes of those who truly understand reincarnation. For
Stafford, another culture’s religious belief only leads to the commonsense observation that it would be better
to have more than one chance to live life right and to redo past wrongs. This is the extent to which he is
willing to claim any understanding of Indian religious beliefs.
Separating the parts of the poem with section numbers, subtitles, and different structural styles, Stafford is
able to change moods quickly. The second section leaves behind the sad regret of the first. In “Having It Be
Tomorrow,” one small metaphor is built up to proportions that it could not command if it were not in this
particular place in this particular poem. Basically, all this part of the poem does is take the light of the sun,
which shines indiscriminately in all directions, and explain it in terms of a lantern beam that is aimed with
conscious effort. Sunrise crawls progressively across the face of the earth, and the poem relates that
progression to the sense of improvement that is often associated with “tomorrow.” Again, Stafford is not so
narrow-minded as to claim that things will always be better tomorrow, only that those who fail to see life
getting better will feel old, whereas those who do feel the improvement laugh. This is logic that is hard to
argue against. If this section were a poem unto itself, and this were all that it had to tell readers, this simple
observation would be too lightweight to be worth mentioning. In the middle of a complex piece with changing
attitudes, it adds depth and dimension.
“Being Nice and Old” is neither sad, like the first section, nor optimistic like the second. It is sarcastic,
although, strangely, in a life-affirming way. A clue to this comes from the use of the word “nice” in the
section’s title. Readers have to ask themselves what use an author of Stafford’s verbal precision would have
for a word so vague and weak, so incapable of inspiring anything more than a shrug from readers. What
Stafford does here with this unpoetic word makes readers reconsider it. Rather than serving up the tired
cliches that usually arise around the concept of niceness, he ends up describing a nice old age as one in which
those who disagree have fallen off the edge of the world. It is a calm and carefully phrased idea, not violent
nor sweet nor angry nor sad. Ultimately, it is hard-nosed reality: what is peace in old age, or at any age, except
for being with friends and being freed of those who disagree? Stafford does not sugarcoat the truth but phrases
it coldly, and he highlights his cold phrasing with the use of the word “nice.” Added to the first section’s
sadness and the second’s optimism is this section’s unsentimental realism.
The last part of the poem, “Good Ways to Live,” uses the sober word “good” whereas the previous section
used the candy-coated “nice.” It leaves behind relationships between people and, like the second section,
focuses on nature. But, unlike section 2, which looked to one natural phenomenon, the progression of the sun,
for hope, this section looks at nature in full. “Room,” as in “The room you have / in the world is ready to
change,” is a well-chosen word, denoting both the social space within a house and also the portion of the
whole universe that is allotted to one individual. One other word that is worth noting is “ways” in the title of
This Poem Makes Death Believable 11
this section. Since the poem only talks about one type of human experience—being drawn out by “the
emanation of all things”—“ways” clearly refers to the actions of the birds, clouds, stars, and so forth. They
live in this poem. Stafford affirms all things, just as he, in this last section, writes off all of the other ways of
living covered in the rest of the poem. The Indian way discussed in the first section is incomplete because of
that unspecified “animal” that stands on the side, watching the one person remember a past life and the other
wish he could. The animal, like the birds in section 4, has a good way to live, too. The anticipation of each
new day is good, but it ends with death. The enjoyment of friends, too, is temporal. Stafford has set each part
of the poem up to give a truth, but they all fall short when faced with the eternal truth.
A poem that takes life and death as its subject matter has little chance of success. No writers have had the
firsthand experience of death, and most bring to the subject all of the preconceptions and prejudices that they
have learned throughout their lives. The fact that “Ways to Live” is able to make a meaningful statement
comes mostly from the fact that William Stafford, in his old age, was still humble enough to stay away from
areas that he did not know about. The poem goes into optimism and mysticism in places, but it
counterbalances these with simplicity and the nerve to tell readers what the author does not know. The final
image of death as a union with the natural world is the one luxury Stafford allows, the one place where he
pretends to know the unknowable. Given who William Stafford was and how he presented himself in his
poetry, most readers are willing to allow him that luxury.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on “Ways to Live,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Kelly
is an instructor of creative writing and literature at Oakton Community College.
Use of Metaphors For Advice on How to Live
In “Education by Poetry,” Robert Frost argues that “the height of all thinking . . . [is] the attempt to say
matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter.” What he means is that the ability to “say one thing in
terms of another” is what thinking is. Frost is not the only poet to have made this observation. Pound’s
advice to go in fear of abstractions, William Carlos Williams’s insistence that ideas can only be found in
things, and T. S. Eliot’s objective correlative are all metaphors for the idea that metaphors are indispensable
to poetry (and all serious uses of language). Yet the modernists’ interest in metaphor manifested itself
primarily as an interest in imagery, and that interest—still strong relatively late in the twentieth century in the
deepimage work of poets like Robert Bly and James Wright—may have undermined our willingness to value
certain more general—more rhetorical— uses of comparison.
“Ways to Live” is one of William Stafford’s later poems, and like much of Stafford’s later work, the poem
is infused with the speaker’s consciousness of his own impending death. The poem’s title is ironic because
although it suggests that the poem is going to be about “ways to live,” the poem really concerns the way
people might live with the knowledge of imminent death. Although the poem contains a good many images,
its effectiveness relies on the way it uses the extended metaphor to express advice about how people might
live well with that knowledge. While an image can be seen as a small “visual” moment in a poem that makes
an abstract idea more discernible by making it physical—and while images are typically constructed out of
metaphors and similes—extended metaphors are more like analogies in that they extend a comparison further
out than most images can, linking large bodies of language with other large bodies of language to say
something about being human that could not otherwise be said.
“Ways to Live” is constructed of four titled sections of varying stanza systems and line lengths. Each section
presents an alternative way to view the weight of death-consciousness. Because many thinkers have suggested
that humankind’s foreknowledge of death is the most significant difference between people and animals,
Stafford’s argument in this poem is especially interesting. The poem’s first section, entitled “India,”
explores the idea of reincarnation in India, celebrating, in deeply metaphorical lines, the notion that
Use of Metaphors For Advice on How to Live 12
individuals might “happen” more than “once.” Yet section one does not so much test or explore the idea of
reincarnation as imply that people who believe in it give anyone who looks into their eyes “some faroff story /
with them and you in it.” In other words, Stafford implies in the first section of “Ways to Live” that
believing in reincarnation is a “way to live” with the idea of death, since it eliminates the fear of death with a
“soft look.” This look suggests that, in Stafford’s view, people who believe they will return to the earth after
death as another human or animal have found a wholesome “way to live” with the idea of ending by dying. In
so doing, it suggests that belief systems—the ideas people construct for themselves in order to live in the
world—are central factors in living and dying. What is interesting about this observation is that it implies that
metaphor itself—certainly Stafford is using reincarnation is a metaphor for the after life in “Ways to Live”—is
as central to living as it is to poetry.
The poem’s second section, entitled “Having It Be Tomorrow,” contains the poem’s most beautiful
metaphor, suggesting that an additional way to live with the idea of impending death is to be “in on [the]
secret” of the notion that each new day is a certain blessing which “[holds] its lantern before it, / [and] moves
over the whole earth slowly / to brighten that edge and push it westward.” In this section of the poem,
Stafford compares people who recognize the “beads of light” that each new day is made of to people who
“shake their heads turning gray every / morning when the sun comes up.” In other words, Stafford compares
people who live without the fear of death with people who do. In so doing, he implies that the wisdom that is
the “secret” in this section of the poem is the ability to recognize that “the welcome of children / will remain
every day new” in the hearts of people who not only understand, but fully celebrate, the cycle of birth and
death. Like the idea in the poem’s first section that states that believing in reincarnation will help people live
well by preventing the fear of only “[happening] once,” this section of the poem, which states that seeing
each new day as new, is also a metaphor, signifying that a certain optimistic attitude will help readers see “a
new land / [coming] every time the sun goes climbing over it.”
The poem’s third section, entitled “Being Nice and Old,” celebrates old age itself by suggesting that it is
possible to be “nice and old” by remembering how “dizzying” the past was and recognizing “the light . . . on
the faces of friends.” This section of the poem is also ironic, since Stafford suggests that it is “nice and old”
to “turn away” from “any people you don’t like” and “let them drop off the edge of the world.” Our culture
famously celebrates youth, but in this section of “Ways to Live,” Stafford implies that old age is not as bad as
what might be thought. After all, old people can take pleasure in being beyond the “dizzying” past and “turn
away” from people they “don’t like.” In this section of the poem, Stafford suggests that an additional
alternative way to live with death is to be at peace in old age. It is interesting to note, too, that in “Being Nice
and Old,” Stafford links light, which is everywhere in the poem, with love. At the end of the poem, the
speaker himself will “spread in the thin halo of night mist,” while people he says he does not “like” will
“fall off the edge of the world.” Although Stafford does not use the terms “heaven” and “hell” anywhere in
“Ways to Live,” it is clear he is using these mythological terms to address himself, if subtly, to two
alternative ways to live and die.
The poem’s final section, because it is titled “Good Ways to Live,” implies that of all the ways to live with
the knowledge of impending death so far explored, a recognition of the way “the emanation of all things”
“moves or / almost moves” is probably the best. In this section of the poem, “the emanation of all things” is
probably death itself, and what is remarkable about the stanza is the way in which death is being celebrated as
a kind of life force. Death here is actually breathing—it “moves or / almost moves” and is related to the
natural world in the “clouds [that parade by, and [the] stars in their / configurations.” In the poem’s final
image, death is so vital and so ironically full of life that it “pulls [the speaker] slowly out through doors or
windows” until he “[spreads] in the thin halo of night mist.” Although the image of a dead man “[spreading]
in the thin halo of night mist” is an image—certainly, readers can see the old idea of a spirit rising in this
line—the whole notion of death as a kind of life force in this section of the poem is more of an extended
metaphor, suggesting that death is not the might that kills life so much as a force that helps to make life life.
Use of Metaphors For Advice on How to Live 13
In the poem’s final section, Stafford is borrowing from Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, which
puts forward the idea that people do not die but join all others who have died before in an ethereal community
of spirit. Yet because Stafford is a poet and not a psychologist-philosopher, he is able to make that idea, which
is abstract, concrete with nouns. Here, the collective unconscious becomes a “thin halo of night mist.” In
other sections of the poem, Stafford uses metaphor and image in much the same way, suggesting that the
peacefulness that comes with a belief in reincarnation might produce “a soft look,” or that people who
understand “the secret” of the blessing of each new day will be able to see the “day” itself “holding its
lantern before it.”
“Ways to Live” uses both image and extended metaphor to express alternative methods for living with the
idea of impending death because metaphor is the only way, as Frost says, that humans can think. When Frost
states that the “height of all thinking” is the ability “to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of
matter,” he is saying that all language is metaphorical. When it is said that a child’s hair is like the sunshine,
it is a simile being used to make a visual picture so that readers can approximate what the child’s hair looks
like. But when William Stafford says that living with the idea that people are going to die ought to be
conducted “the way they do it in India,” or by being “in on [the secret] . . . of the “day” with “its lantern,”
or by rejecting the “dizzying” past and seeing “light” “on the faces of friends,” or by letting death “pull [us]
/ slowly out through doors or windows,” something even more magnificent is happening. In “Ways to Live,”
Stafford is advising people on how they might approach the most profound and universal of human mysteries
from the position of his advanced old age and wisdom. If this is not “the height of all thinking” that leads to
what might be called the height of all feeling, nothing is.
Source: Adrian Blevins, Critical Essay on “Ways to Live,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Blevins teaches writing courses at Roanoke College.
Meditations on Life
William Stafford wrote “Ways to Live” from July 19 to July 21, 1993, just over a month before his death at
the end of August. An exponent of plain speech in poetry, Stafford avoids verbal gymnastics, cultivating his
perception and his stance toward his subject and audience instead of polishing his lines with meter and rhyme
and all the paraphernalia of formal structure. John Kennedy, writing in The Antioch Review, says that,
“Stafford’s is not a poetry of gimmicks or confessional sensationalism. He minimized the importance of
technique and spoke of his poetry as a result of receptivity, not design.” Some poets and critics dismissed
Stafford because he wrote too much and published too much. Others admire him for his unadorned simplicity
of expression. “Ways to Live” is a very plain-spoken poem about four different approaches to life, and, given
Stafford’s age and health at the time of its composition, about methods to deal with death by reminding
oneself of the powers and gifts that life brings.
This poem takes on its own organic design, a four-fold path to practical wisdom. His poem is divided into four
parts, each of which is a calm meditation on life and death. Faced with the end of his own life, Stafford writes
about the things that are good in life, not in a grandiose, self-gratifying way, not claiming that he has grasped
all of life’s mysteries, nor is he in any sense regretful or tearful about his impending death. This poem tries to
grip the truths of life by pulling forth simple images that suggest rather than lecture. The poet seeks the moral
truth in a world of things; he does not attempt to dazzle, nor to preach loudly. Rather, he gives his readers
multiple perspectives, with no pretense of comprehensiveness or intellectual rigor, but he offers them for what
one may make of them. His poem is characteristically restrained, understated, and plain. He quietly celebrates
lessons he has learned in his life, and he shows them to his reader, all without anxiety.
The first section of his poem is subtitled “India.” He ponders the Hindu acceptance of reincarnation and
introduces a bit of deliberate awkwardness in the first lines: “In India in their lives they happen / again and
Meditations on Life 14
again.” The expression “in their lives” seems redundant, but as the poem develops, readers see that “in their
lives” is a guiding motif throughout all of the four parts. Everything that happens in this poem happens in
somebody’s life. Their lives are what encompasses all experiences; “they happen” only within that
wholeness of being that is a human life. Stafford liberally uses second person, giving the poem an immediacy
as well as a universality, “when you’re wrong, it’s too late / to go back— you’ve done it forever.” This
“you” is neither him, nor is it a specific address to a reader; instead, it is a colloquial way of making a general
statement about the human condition while maintaining an intimacy of expression. Naomi Shihab Nye has
said, in the preface to Stafford’s posthumous collection The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems, “Rarely has a
voice felt so intimate and so collective at once.” There is an informality about “you,” that is very appropriate
to this poem. Stafford relates the traditional Indian view toward death without explicit comment, but he
suggests that the Indians have developed an understanding of death that allows them to “have that soft look
when you / pass, the way they do it in India.” Here, readers see Stafford’s unsentimental gentleness. In
asserting the eternal recurrence of life, the people of India seem to have found one of the “Ways to Live” the
poet contemplates in his last month. To “pass” is merely to move on, to go with the roll of the eternal wheel
or to participate in the passing of time. The word “pass” is also, of course, a euphemism for “die,” an
expression chosen for its mild effect. The tone of the whole poem continues this placid mood.
“Having It Be Tomorrow” is the subtitle of the second section. The poet personifies the day, which “holds its
lantern before it,” bringing light and life to the entire planet. Stafford evokes the timeless pastoral imagery of
shepherds lighting fires, “beads of light that extend miles of horizon.” Although the stanza is independent,
the connections with the previous one linger, and these shepherds seem to inhabit the uplands of the
Himalayas and other exotic peaks. Here, Stafford expresses the long panoramic vista, the immemorial play of
light upon the land, painted with unornamented, plain language, and he moves from the largeness of his
timeless vision to the intimate particular secret that brings laughter to anyone who shares it. Stafford says that
there is a “secret” that allows the world to be seen as new each and every day, keeping “you,” presumably
the poet, young at heart. Others get gray, but those who know the secret of the sunrise, the possibilities of
creation that occur with absolute regularity, every day of one’s life, maintain a childlike understanding of the
world. Stafford spent a long career developing his distinctive method of composition, writing early in the
morning, every morning, letting himself respond to whatever ideas or images moved him that morning,
seizing on the newness and freshness each day brings, keeping his imagery and his vision fresh. The morning
is the time of his greatest creativity, when the world is young and all is possible. Stafford does not proclaim
this secret loudly; he quietly acclaims it as yet another way to live, but readers glimpse his pattern. These
ways to live are all good ways, are all approaches to life that enrich human existence.
In the third section of the poem, “Being Nice and Old,” the poet describes old people looking back on their
lives, “all of that which was so dizzying when it happened” as he constructs a tableau of oldsters who are
reminiscing and evaluating their lives, looking at their friends as though they are the light itself. Then in the
last five lines of the short stanza, Stafford introduces a metaphorical comparison of lives with a book. It is
possible to handle people “you” do not like by developing the ability to “turn / the page a little more and
wait,” or indeed, to let go of unwanted people by letting them “drop off the edge of the world.” The old,
Stafford is saying, may at the end of their lives gain a clarity and judgment on their own lives, turning to
friendship or, conversely, having the wisdom to ignore persons who do not deserve the attention and vexation
that might afflict the young. There is a nice ambiguity in this subtitle, as though the poet wants to be both
“nice” in the sense of being kind and honest, and “nice and old” as in having attained, and gained, an
important perspective through age and time and reflection. At seventynine, William Stafford, honored and
elderly poet, commends this judicious conservation of friendship and its corollary, the abandonment of
troublesome people, as one of his several ways to live.
Finally, in the last section, “Good Ways to Live,” Stafford reaches out to the mysterious life force that
animates the living and gently transforms the dead. With splendid, calm, confident understatement, the poet
says that, “The room you have / in the world is ready to change.” In all the parts of this poem, Stafford avoids
Meditations on Life 15
despair, lament, or any sense of loss, despite clearly mulling over his own, and “your” own mortality.
Elemental images, trees, grass, winds, clouds, and birds are all in changes. There is a soul, in ancient Greek a
pneuma or breath of life, within all things. Here, Stafford invokes a pantheistic universe, in which at the center
of the earth, as opposed to some celestial realm, is the living, breathing, inspiring “emanation of all things.”
Pantheism holds that God, or the consciousness of the world, is not separate or transcendent from the world,
but is intimately bound up, immanent, in all the things that make up the world. In this view, God is made up
of the things and beings of the world. Consistent images of breath, mist, and clouds create a sense of the
respiration of all things, the constant condensation and evaporation of life itself, all in a cyclic process that
alludes to the cycles of the first and second parts of the poem, the Hindu cycle of samsara, of birth and death
and rebirth, and of the diurnal cycle of daylight and the constant newness of the world. When “you spread in
the thin halo of night mist” life has shuffled off the mortal coil and reformed itself as an attenuated plume of
something— Stafford cannot be precise—that is part of life and beyond life. All these four observations he has
chosen to link into one poem because all of them are life-affirming, quietly revealed ways that human beings
can come to terms, without sentimentality, cynicism, or sorrow, with their own limited, finite, and yet sacred
sense of self.
Source: Frank Pool, Critical Essay on “Ways to Live,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Pool is
a published poet and a high school English teacher.
Ways to Live: Topics for Further Study
Suppose William Stafford were limited to having only three sections to this poem. Decide which section he
could most easily give up and explain why.
Interview several people who are over the age of seventy and ask what they think of the people whom they did
not like in their youth. Discuss your findings with others in your class.
Stafford refers to the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Explore the Internet and find at least three sites by people
who claim to have been reincarnated and then explain whether you think their stories are true or not.
Find another poem that is written in numbered sections like this one is and write an essay explaining why you
think poets sometimes choose this technique.
To symbolize the lights created by people, Stafford refers to shepherds preparing their breakfasts. Make a list
of other professions that require people to be at work before dawn and chart what times their lights would
come on.
Ways to Live: Media Adaptations
Magnolia Films of San Anselmo, California, released a video entitled William Stafford and Robert Bly (1994),
which documents the friendship between the two poets.
An audiocassette of Willliam Stafford’s Last Reading is available from Bancroft Poetry Archive Sound
Recordings. It was taped at the Portland Poetry Festival in Oregon on August 13, 1993, just weeks before the
poet’s death.
William Stafford is among several poets who participated in making What Good Is Poetry?, a l6 mm film
released by Mill Mountain Films of Spokane, Washington, in 1979.
Ways to Live: Topics for Further Study 16
Ways to Live: What Do I Read Next?
“Ways to Live” is included along with other poems that Stafford produced in the last months of his life in
The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, published posthumously by Graywolf Press in 1998.
Stafford was well known in poetry circles by the time his first book was published, but it was his second book
Traveling through the Dark (1962) that attracted attention and established him as an important American
author. Most of the poems from this volume have been reprinted in other collections, but it does help to
experience them the way the original readers did.
Judith Kitchen is a preeminent Stafford scholar, who has published several books about the poet. Her most
recent study of Stafford’s poetry is Writing the Word: Understanding William Stafford, published in 1999 by
Oregon State University Press.
In addition to being a poet, Stafford wrote some of the most bright and readable books about the art of writing
poetry that are available. His You Must Revise Your Life, a tutorial on writing and teaching, is a staple of
creative writing classes; it was published by University of Michigan Press in 1986.
Stafford’s book Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation is another book of essays that
is instructive about the writing business and about the poet’s views. It was edited by Donald Hall, himself a
major American poet, and published by University of Michigan Press in 1976.
In 1983, Godine Press published Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry. It is the record of a series of letters
sent back and forth between Stafford and another poet, Marvin Bell, providing readers with a lively look at the
creative process as poems are practically developed as quickly as they can be read.
Ways to Live: Bibliography and Further Reading
Burns, Gerald, “A Book to Build On,” in Southwest Review, Summer 1970, pp. 309–10.
Frost, Robert, “Education by Poetry,” in Discovering Language, edited by William Vesterman, Allyn and
Bacon, 1992.
Howard, Ben, “Together and Apart,” in Poetry, April 1992, pp. 34–44.
Kennedy, John, “On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things,” in The Antioch Review, Vol. 53, No. 4,
Fall 1995, p. 496.
Nye, Naomi Shihab, Preface, in The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, William Stafford, Graywolf Press,
Simpson, Louis, Review of West of Your City, in Hudson Review, Autumn 1961, pp. 461–70.
Further Reading
Andrews, Tom, ed., On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things, University of Michigan Press, 1993.
Several contemporary poets, including Margaret Atwood, Richard Hugo, Linda Pastan, and Charles Simic,
contributed essays to this generally positive collection about Stafford’s career.
Ways to Live: What Do I Read Next? 17
Capps, Donald, The Poet’s Gift: Toward the Renewal of Pastoral Care, Westminster/John Knox Press,1993.
This analysis from a theological perspective looks at poetry from Stafford and Denise Levertov to make the
case for spirituality in modern literature.
Carpenter, David A., William Stafford, Boise State University Press, 1986. At just over fifty pages, this brief
survey of the poet’s life up to that time was part of the university’s “Western Writers” series.
Marshall, Gary Thomas, William Stafford: A Writer Writing, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale,
1990. Marshall’s Ph.D. dissertation analyzing Stafford’s career is available on the Internet and also on
microfilm from Southern Illinois University.
Pinsker, Sanford, Three Pacific Northwest Poets: William Stafford, Richard Hugo, and David Wagoner,
Twayne, 1987. Pinsker examines Stafford as a regional poet, with other poets from his area of the country
providing critical contrast.
Stafford, William, “The End of a Golden String,” in Written in Water, Written in Stone: Twenty Years of
“Poets on Poetry,” University of Michigan Press, 1996, pp. 235–42. Stafford’s essay, just one of dozens in
this book written by contemporary poets, traces the seeds of inspiration, finding them in real life rather than in
poetic sources.

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