The Way It Is

By William Stafford

published by Graywolf Press

268 pages, 1998

Buy it online





The Way it Should Be

Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley


William Stafford was the best poet no one has ever heard of. Born in Kansas in 1914, he was a witness for peace, honesty, the nature of man, and the natural world. The author of over 50 books, Stafford was a professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon (teaching my parents). As a conscientious objector to World War II, he began his unswerving habit of writing before dawn each day, as well as his habitual generosity to other writers and readers. He died in his home in Oregon in 1993.

The Way It Is, a new collection of his poetry, includes unpublished work from Stafford's last year -- including the poem he wrote the day he died -- as well as his best work from throughout his illustrious career. More than anything, what the book reveals is his faith in language, in the soul of man, and of the natural order of things.

Dandelion cavalry, light little saviors

battle the wind, they ride so light

they surround a church and outside the window

utter their deaf little cry: 'If you listen/ well, music won't have to happen.'


Magical his poetry is. The language rolls off the page -- and the tongue -- like music.

Next time what I'd do is look at

the earth before saying anything. I'd stop

just before going into the house

and be an emperor for a minute

and listen better to the wind

or to the air being still.


He creates indelible images that stick in your mind for quite some time. He's a photographer using words.


It's time for all the heroes to go home

if they have any, time for

all of us common ones

to locate ourselves by the real things

we live by.


He makes us feel better about ourselves. He makes us feel better about others. His poems create communities.

Similar to Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Stafford is a poet in every sense of the word. His poems, understated, with language as clean and clear as sunrise, speak volumes of the human condition and the world around us.


Friends, Farewell -- After the chores are done I tune

and strum. Nobody hears, nobody cares

and the stars go on.

Now that I've told you this, maybe

I've been all wrong -- so faint a life

and so little done.

But I want you all to be easy after

I'm gone: nobody here, nobody care

and the stars go on.

| May 1999


Jonathan Shipley is a graduate of Washington State University and the editor of the literary magazine Odin's Eye. Shipley works for The Seattle Times and anticipates the day when he'll write his own novel for others to review.