Reviewed by Doug Brown
William Stafford, in addition to having been a fine poet, was one of the few who didn't just talk about peace. During World War II, when everyone else was so sure war was okay after all, he was a conscientious objector, sent to work camps in Arkansas, California, Indiana, and Illinois. In the camps he gained his lifelong practice of rising early in the morning and writing. As he explains in a later interview contained herein, "So we had this bright idea ï¿½ which I still practice as a writer ï¿½ which was we'd get up at four a.m. and do our classes and our reading while we were fresh, and then when we were exhausted we'd work for the government." Stafford's son Kim edited this anthology of his father's writings on war and pacifism. Every War Has Two Losers includes poems, journal entries, and interviews.
The first entry is a chapter from Stafford's first book Down in My Heart, his account of life in the conscientious objector camps. The chapter describes almost being lynched by a crowd of Arkansans who didn't like the look of him and his pacifist friends. They were saved partly because Walt Whitman's poems don't rhyme (you've got to read it to understand). It's a fantastic bit of writing about mobs, hate, fear, forgiveness, and America.
The chapter is followed by excerpts from Stafford's daily writings; miscellaneous thoughts on judgement and responsible citizenry. Many of these are just a few sentences, but sentences that make you look out the window into the middle distance and contemplate. A sampler:
"If your enemy is an unjust person, why do you think proof of that injustice will bring about a change?""Our 'leaders' viewed as entertainers: Their drama becomes more important than the essential qualities of leadership. Our artists too are entertainers and succeed in large part by qualities so related. We do not learn, but are reminded, stroked."
"You may win a war you are sorry to have started."
"The wider your knowledge the milder your opinions?"
"Recently a new serenity has touched me, a feeling of wisdom. No, this is not a proud feeling, a feeling of being in control, but an acceptance of not being in control."
The poems contained here have mostly appeared in other collections, but I've found it never hurts to read Stafford again. Here's one:
A piccolo played, then a drum.
Feet began to come ï¿½ a part
of the music. Here came a horse,
clippety clop, away.
My mother said, "Don't run ï¿½
the army is after someone
other than us. If you stay
you'll learn our enemy."
Then he came, the speaker. He stood
in the square. He told us who
to hate. I watched my mother's face,
its quiet. "That's him," she said.
If you are at all interested in the topics of war, pacifism, judgementalism, social responsibility, or if you just like good writing, you can't go wrong with Every War Has Two Losers. Stafford always strove in his writings and thoughts to be inclusive, to actively resist those so quick to draw lines between people. Thus he avoided the trap of the preachy voice; instead of the teacher, he is one of us, questioning. His gift, in addition to being a wordsmith, was a knack for asking questions that get right to the heart of the matter.
"Those who champion democracy, but also make a fetish of never accepting anything they don't agree with ï¿½ what advantage do they see in democracy?"
Books mentioned in this post