William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl

William Stafford’s honesty about the writing process is irresistible. Over and over again in Writing The Australian Crawl he admits to some remarkable points: that there is no such thing as skill, that anyone can write, that getting over writer’s block is simply a matter of lowering one’s standards, that editors are friends put on Earth to help us keep back work that should not be in print, that criticism shuts down the creative process fast, and that defending or justifying the significance of one’s work is not the writer’s job.

Above all, he seems to confirm–from many different angles–what I have been discovering in my own journey from criticism to craft: that the tools of criticism are simply not well suited to the task of writing well. What you need, from Stafford’s point of view, is willingness to keep writing. He revealed that the vast majority of what he wrote he never sent out, and of the writing he did think publication-worthy, only one-tenth was ever published. While one could argue that this was only his particular approach and style, having such an interesting writer admit to his own process like this debunks a whole lot of nonsense about any determinate meaning-making approach to art. Everywhere in this book Stafford seems to be saying, instead, “Just keep writing.”

Stafford relies on process and revelation above all, not unlike Frost’s idea of moving like an ice cube melting across a hot stove. He often seems to regard a good line as a kind of “handhold in water,” a remark as easily made as retracted, but which furthers the momentum of the poem forward. In fact, he regards this momentum as more significant than word choice. He rarely revised anything more than a few days old.

He was a Quaker and a conscientious objector during World War II. And his poems are fascinating. Without trotting out any of the old workhorses of lyric poetry, or elevating diction above anything more than a whimsical conversation, Stafford’s poems seem to be speaking to my subconscious, to the part of me that feels more convinced by dreams than reality. I feel I understand his work, yet would be hard-put to explain it in concrete terms. It rings with poetic conviction. So, too, do his thoughts on writing well–especially in the transcripts of his interviews, slotted in at the back of this book.

Stafford’s words about the state of “contemporary” poetics in 1978 represent a marvelous time capsule of a period when free verse was just emerging. It seems as though even academics were a bit baffled by the significant perceived lack of structure in contemporary poetry, whereas now only laymen still think poems should chime and rhyme in recognizable verse. I suppose the difference is that, back then, there was a refreshing, exciting newness about contemporary poetry. By now, the newness has worn off, and we’re left facing the more difficult questions of how to forge our own structures in the face of seemingly open-ended opportunity.

Even if Stafford has only got it right for himself about the inner game of writing, I would like to believe his straightforward, pragmatic approach to writing applies to everyone that is serious about sustaining a life in art. One of his most memorable responses in an interview was to the question of when he started writing. His response was basically that everyone used to write and be creative when they were young, so really his counter-question was, “Why did everyone else stop?” Or, more interesting to me, “Why did Stafford persist? And how?” This book lays out gem after pragmatic gem of advice from someone who hung in there with his muse. Rather than debunk the mystique of writing well, Stafford has deepened my appreciation of the dedication it takes to keep going.