In an October 1957 letter to a friend who had recommended he read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Although I don’t feel that it’s at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I’ll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence. . . .”
Thompson carved out his niche early. He was born in 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky, where his fiction and poetry earned him induction into the local Athenaeum Literary Association while he was still in high school. Thompson continued his literary pursuits in the United States Air Force, writing a weekly sports column for the base newspaper. After two years of service, Thompson endured a series of newspaper jobs—all of which ended badly—before he took to freelancing from Puerto Rico and South America for a variety of publications. The vocation quickly developed into a compulsion.
Thompson completed The Rum Diary, his only novel to date, before he turned twenty-five; bought by Ballantine Books, it finally was published—to glowing reviews—in 1998. In 1967, Thompson published his first nonfiction book, Hell’s Angels, a harsh and incisive firsthand investigation into the infamous motorcycle gang then making the heartland of America nervous.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which first appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, sealed Thompson’s reputation as an outlandish stylist successfully straddling the line between journalism and fiction writing. As the subtitle warns, the book tells of “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” in full-tilt gonzo style—Thompson’s hilarious first-person approach—and is accented by British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s appropriate drawings.
His next book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, was a brutally perceptive take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. A self-confessed political junkie, Thompson chronicled the 1992 presidential campaign in Better than Sex (1994). Thompson’s other books include The Curse of Lono (1983), a bizarre South Seas tale, and three collections of Gonzo Papers: The Great Shark Hunt (1979), Generation of Swine (1988) and Songs of the Doomed (1990).
In 1997, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, the first volume of Thompson’s correspondence with everyone from his mother to Lyndon Johnson, was published. The second volume of letters, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, has just been released.
Located in the mostly posh neighborhood of western Colorado’s Woody Creek Canyon, ten miles or so down-valley from Aspen, Owl Farm is a rustic ranch with an old-fashioned Wild West charm. Although Thompson’s beloved peacocks roam his property freely, it’s the flowers blooming around the ranch house that provide an unexpected high-country tranquility. Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Keith Richards, among dozens of others, have shot clay pigeons and stationary targets on the property, which is a designated Rod and Gun Club and shares a border with the White River National Forest. Almost daily, Thompson leaves Owl Farm in either his Great Red Shark Convertible or Jeep Grand Cherokee to mingle at the nearby Woody Creek Tavern.
Visitors to Thompson’s house are greeted by a variety of sculptures, weapons, boxes of books and a bicycle before entering the nerve center of Owl Farm, Thompson’s obvious command post on the kitchen side of a peninsula counter that separates him from a lounge area dominated by an always-on Panasonic TV, always tuned to news or sports. An antique upright piano is piled high and deep enough with books to engulf any reader for a decade. Above the piano hangs a large Ralph Steadman portrait of “Belinda”—the Slut Goddess of Polo. On another wall covered with political buttons hangs a Che Guevara banner acquired on Thompson’s last tour of Cuba. On the counter sits an IBM Selectric typewriter—a Macintosh computer is set up in an office in the back wing of the house.
The most striking thing about Thompson’s house is that it isn’t the weirdness one notices first: it’s the words. They’re everywhere—handwritten in his elegant lettering, mostly in fading red Sharpie on the blizzard of bits of paper festooning every wall and surface: stuck to the sleek black leather refrigerator, taped to the giant TV, tacked up on the lampshades; inscribed by others on framed photos with lines like, “For Hunter, who saw not only fear and loathing, but hope and joy in ’72—George McGovern”; typed in IBM Selectric on reams of originals and copies in fat manila folders that slide in piles off every counter and table top; and noted in many hands and inks across the endless flurry of pages.
Thompson extricates his large frame from his ergonomically correct office chair facing the TV and lumbers over graciously to administer a hearty handshake or kiss to each caller according to gender, all with an easy effortlessness and unexpectedly old-world way that somehow underscores just who is in charge.
We talked with Thompson for twelve hours straight. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the host: Owl Farm operates like an eighteenth-century salon, where people from all walks of life congregate in the wee hours for free exchanges about everything from theoretical physics to local water rights, depending on who’s there. Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, was present during parts of this interview, as were a steady stream of friends. Given the very late hours Thompson keeps, it is fitting that the most prominently posted quote in the room, in Thompson’s hand, twists the last line of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”: “Rage, rage against the coming of the light.”
For most of the half-day that we talked, Thompson sat at his command post, chain-smoking red Dunhills through a German-made gold-tipped cigarette filter and rocking back and forth in his swivel chair. Behind Thompson’s sui generis personality lurks a trenchant humorist with a sharp moral sensibility. His exaggerated style may defy easy categorization, but his career-long autopsy on the death of the American dream places him among the twentieth century’s most exciting writers. The comic savagery of his best work will continue to electrify readers for generations to come.
. . . I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English Language—and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Well, wanting to and having to are two different things. Originally I hadn’t thought about writing as a solution to my problems. But I had a good grounding in literature in high school. We’d cut school and go down to a café on Bardstown Road where we would drink beer and read and discuss Plato’s parable of the cave. We had a literary society in town, the Athenaeum; we met in coat and tie on Saturday nights. I hadn’t adjusted too well to society—I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation—but I learned at the age of fifteen that to get by you had to find the one thing you can do better than anybody else . . . at least this was so in my case. I figured that out early. It was writing. It was the rock in my sock. Easier than algebra. It was always work, but it was always worthwhile work. I was fascinated early by seeing my byline in print. It was a rush. Still is.
When I got to the Air Force, writing got me out of trouble. I was assigned to pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in northwest Florida, but I was shifted to electronics . . . advanced, very intense, eight-month school with bright guys . . . I enjoyed it but I wanted to get back to pilot training. Besides, I’m afraid of electricity. So I went up there to the base education office one day and signed up for some classes at Florida State. I got along well with a guy named Ed and I asked him about literary possibilities. He asked me if I knew anything about sports, and I said that I had been the editor of my high-school paper. He said, “Well, we might be in luck.” It turned out that the sports editor of the base newspaper, a staff sergeant, had been arrested in Pensacola and put in jail for public drunkenness, pissing against the side of a building; it was the third time and they wouldn’t let him out.
So I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night. This was my ticket to ride, my ticket to get out of that damn place. So I started as an editor. Boy, what a joy. I wrote long Grantland Rice-type stories. The sports editor of my hometown Louisville Courier Journal always had a column, left-hand side of the page. So I started a column.
By the second week I had the whole thing down. I could work at night. I wore civilian clothes, worked off base, had no hours, but I worked constantly. I wrote not only for the base paper, The Command Courier, but also the local paper, The Playground News. I’d put things in the local paper that I couldn’t put in the base paper. Really inflammatory shit. I wrote for a professional wrestling newsletter. The Air Force got very angry about it. I was constantly doing things that violated regulations. I wrote a critical column about how Arthur Godfrey, who’d been invited to the base to be the master of ceremonies at a firepower demonstration, had been busted for shooting animals from the air in Alaska. The base commander told me: “Goddamn it, son, why did you have to write about Arthur Godfrey that way?”
When I left the Air Force I knew I could get by as a journalist. So I went to apply for a job at Sports Illustrated. I had my clippings, my bylines, and I thought that was magic . . . my passport. The personnel director just laughed at me. I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve been sports editor for two papers.” He told me that their writers were judged not by the work they’d done, but where they’d done it. He said, “Our writers are all Pulitzer Prize winners from The New York Times. This is a helluva place for you to start. Go out into the boondocks and improve yourself.”
I was shocked. After all, I’d broken the Bart Starr story.
What was that?
At Eglin Air Force Base we always had these great football teams. The Eagles. Championship teams. We could beat up on the University of Virginia. Our bird-colonel Sparks wasn’t just any yo-yo coach. We recruited. We had these great players serving their military time in ROTC. We had Zeke Bratkowski, the Green Bay quarterback. We had Max McGee of the Packers. Violent, wild, wonderful drunk. At the start of the season McGee went AWOL, appeared at the Green Bay camp and he never came back. I was somehow blamed for his leaving. The sun fell out of the firmament. Then the word came that we were getting Bart Starr, the All-American from Alabama. The Eagles were going to roll! But then the staff sergeant across the street came in and said, “I’ve got a terrible story for you. Bart Starr’s not coming.” I managed to break into an office and get out his files. I printed the order that showed he was being discharged medically. Very serious leak.
The Bart Starr story was not enough to impress Sports Illustrated?
The personnel guy there said, “Well, we do have this trainee program.” So I became a kind of copy boy.
You eventually ended up in San Francisco. With the publication in 1967 of Hell’s Angels, your life must have taken an upward spin.
All of a sudden I had a book out. At the time I was twenty-nine years old and I couldn’t even get a job driving a cab in San Francisco, much less writing. Sure, I had written important articles for The Nation and The Observer, but only a few good journalists really knew my byline. The book enabled me to buy a brand new BSA 650 Lightning, the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine. It validated everything I had been working toward. If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else. To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that. Hell’s Angels all of a sudden proved to me that, Holy Jesus, maybe I can do this. I knew I was a good journalist. I knew I was a good writer, but I felt like I got through a door just as it was closing.
With the swell of creative energy flowing throughout the San Francisco scene at the time, did you interact with or were you influenced by any other writers?
Ken Kesey for one. His novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion had quite an impact on me. I looked up to him hugely. One day I went down to the television station to do a roundtable show with other writers, like Kay Boyle, and Kesey was there. Afterwards we went across the street to a local tavern and had several beers together. I told him about the Angels, who I planned to meet later that day, and I said, “Well, why don’t you come along?” He said, “Whoa, I’d like to meet these guys.” Then I got second thoughts, because it’s never a good idea to take strangers along to meet the Angels. But I figured that this was Ken Kesey, so I’d try. By the end of the night Kesey had invited them all down to La Honda, his woodsy retreat outside of San Francisco. It was a time of extreme turbulence—riots in Berkeley. He was always under assault by the police—day in and day out, so La Honda was like a war zone. But he had a lot of the literary, intellectual crowd down there, Stanford people also, visiting editors, and Hell’s Angels. Kesey’s place was a real cultural vortex.
"If you have been wondering where the articulate, readable poems have gone in the last third of the 20th century, you might start with [William] Stafford," declares Victor Howes of the Christian Science Monitor. A pacifist and one of "the quiet of the land," as he often describes himself, Stafford is known for his unique method of composition, his soft-spoken voice, and his independence from social and literary expectations. As G. E. Murray comments in a National Forum review, "Stafford generally has been appreciated as a plain talking but remarkably effective and influential American poet, one who has paradoxically fashioned a part of the mainstream of American poetry by keeping apart from its trends and politics." And while critics through the years have not been unanimous to rank Stafford as a major poet, they concur that he is one of the most esteemed. This was confirmed in 1986 when Stafford's peers named him more often than anyone else in a Writer's Digest poll to identify America's ten major living poets. About Stafford's ambiguous position in the hierarchy of American letters, Steve Garrison of the Dictionary of Literary Biography affirms, "That Stafford's is an important voice worthy of study, and of respect, cannot be disputed. He offers a unique way into the heart of the world."
One of America's most prolific poets, Stafford is, according to James Dickey in his book Babel to Byzantium, "a real poet, a born poet," whose "natural mode of speech is a gentle, mystical, half-mocking and highly personal daydreaming about the western United States." Frederick Garber says of Stafford's first book of poems, West of Your City, "West is both Midwest and far West but it is always west of where we are. It is the place of nature and especially of nature's secrecy, that Otherness which we can touch at times." Earlier in the American Poetry Review article, Garber claims, "The long spaces which stretch ahead of us, compelling our half-willed entry into them; that curious Other, ... whose hiding-places and motivation are out in those long spaces and have to be sought for there—this is essential Stafford." Other critics explain that the Kansas-born poet and long-time Oregon resident uses western landscapes to address universal themes. New York Times Book Review contributor Ralph J. Mills, Jr., comments, "Of the Eastern states, of our swollen urban areas, [Stafford] does not write, though his work and attitudes say a good deal indirectly about contemporary modes of living that have lost touch with the earth and what it has to teach. He is a regional writer in the best, rather than the narrow sense: He uncovers and keeps alive strata of experience and knowledge that his readers are in grave danger of losing, and without which, Stafford keeps saying, they will forget how 'To walk anywhere in the world, to live / now, to speak, to breathe a harmless / breath.'"
Stafford's poems most often take place on a mountainside, a riverbank, or a roadside—"near an exit," as he told Peter Ellsworth in a Chicago Review interview. The houses in which the poet grew up, according to his essay in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, were always near the edge of town, beyond which there was "adventure, fields forever, or rivers that wended off over the horizon, forever. And in the center of town was a library, another kind of edge out there forever, to explore." Dennis Daley Lynch finds in all the poetry "a searching" that the speaker in the poems regards "as a duty, a charge." Writing in Modern Poetry Studies, Lynch cites as evidence the final line of "Vocation," the last poem in Stafford's 1963 National Book Award-winning title, Traveling through the Dark: "Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be." An extension of Stafford's "questing imagination," in Garrison's view, the poetry also "seeks to take the reader to the frontiers of his own imagination, to the edge of what he knows, and then to induce him to explore farther."
Fascination with the process of discovery also accounts for Stafford's distinctive method of composition. He told Ellsworth, "I feel very exploratory when I write.... I feel like Daniel Boone going into Kentucky. The thing is being there and finding it." Essays that reveal more about Stafford's way of writing make up Writing the Australian Crawl, which Garrison believes to be the best introduction to the poems. About the book, Stafford, who has also taught writing for thirty years, comments in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, "My disquiets—my pacifist disquiets, I guess—about teaching and writing by competitive methods are in that book. For me, a crucial sentence there is, 'A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.'" The sentence he cites begins an essay first published in Field (1970) in which Stafford reports that he sits alone in the early morning and writes down whatever occurs to him, following his impulses. "It is like fishing," he says, and he must be receptive and "willing to fail. If I am to keep writing, I cannot bother to insist on high standards.... I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on.... I am headlong to discover."
Stafford established his habit of rising early every morning to write during the 1940s when he lived with other conscientious objectors in work camps in Arkansas and California. As it becomes clear from the fictionalized account of those experiences Down in My Heart, outdoor work for the U.S. Forest Service left him with little energy for writing or studying at night, so Stafford and the other writers in the camp rose before dawn and wrote until they were called for breakfast. In his Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series essay, Stafford claims that during those hours "something is offering you a guidance available only to those undistracted by anything else." Critic Laurence Lieberman, writing in the Yale Review, remarks that Stafford, who has kept the practice for almost fifty years, "has continued, unwaveringly, ... to develop and refine one of the most delicate supersensitive recording instruments in our poetry. He has been training himself to hear and feel his way back in touch with distant places, ages, epochs."
Those places are the frontiers of his childhood and the wilderness of the native American. George S. Lensing and Ronald Moran, who examine Stafford's themes in Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination, explain, "The Kansas boyhood of Stafford, marking an epoch of American life between two wars, is rural, austere, inhabited by companionable neighbors and dominated by family." Both his parents were avid readers; Stafford often acknowledges their contributions to his identity as a writer. He told Ellsworth, "The voice I hear in my poems is my mother's voice.... I think the arts come from total experience, not that little relay race from Pound to Eliot to me." When another interviewer, Cynthia Lofsness, asked him to elaborate, he replied, "When I notice little turns of speech, and attitudes toward events and people, I sense the presence of my mother's nature and her way of talking." Later in the interview, published in the Iowa Review, he added that her "attitude of not being impressed by the sort of stance or posture that most people take" had influenced him the most.
Lensing and Moran observe that Stafford gained his view of nature, and with it, his most pervasive theme, from his father. "The father who appears in the poems is heroic: ... his moral strength is steady and independent of worldly expectations; most important of all, he is the high priest of the wilderness.... Stafford's father is initiator and instructor to the son, not only in relation to the wilderness itself, but in the moral values which inhere in it." Corresponding to the poet's father are figures of native Americans, whose "wisdom also derives from intimacy with the wilderness." Qualities of Indian life highlighted by Stafford, the analysts note, are "reticence and concealment," "harmony with the wilderness," and "withdrawal, both imposed and preferred, from the predator-settlers." The poems depict this kind of life as the one "the poet has attempted to stake for himself and his family." Stafford "seem[s] to have in mind an ideal community at the edge of the frontier where the people use the land but still have a sense of its mystery," Ellsworth suggests. This life is presented, say Lensing and Moran, as "a richly attractive alternative to contemporary society" that is plagued by "threats of nuclear war," a "ravaging" industrialism, and "a mechanical existence that divorces the individual from authentic human values."
The essayists also claim that Stafford's assessment of society is not pessimistic, but rather "a reaffirmation of American life in the twentieth century.... Part of his confidence in the future is founded upon the miraculous ability of the wilderness, independent of any human agency, to renew itself." The poet describes his first encounter with that power in his Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series essay: "It was like an Indian vision-quest. I was in Liberal High School, and one autumn afternoon on a weekend I got on my bike ... and rode ten or twelve miles to the Cimarron River northeast of town." He climbed the riverbank, and from that vantage observed the open land, the setting sun, the emerging stars, and the rising sun the next morning. "That encounter with the size and serenity of the earth and its neighbors in the sky has never left me. The earth was my home; I would never feel lost while it held me."
"In all his volumes Stafford makes clear his allegiances to all those elements of existence capable of teaching him something about how to live," Garrison notes, but critics feel that two books emphasize this particular "Staffordism." Allegiances—"the most dangerous American book since Walden," according to Gerald Burns—contains poems that tell "what relation is possible between us and the frightening land buried under all that asphalt, and how such a peculiar people as ourselves can live together with something like dignity," as he writes in the Southwest Review. The second is A Glass Face in the Rain, which belongs "in the American pattern of mysticism, a heritage from Edwards, Emerson, and Whitman, preaching wonder and calling us to recognize the physical world around us," Michael Pearson says in the Southern Humanities Review. These comments notwithstanding, Stafford told Ellsworth that he doesn't feel mystical; he only feels "driven into uttering things that must seem quite tame to other people."
"Stafford's dogged faith in the teaching power of Nature has been matched by his persistent demand for a plain-spoken poetry," observes Virginia Quarterly Review contributor Stephen Corey. Stafford's voice, Lieberman says, is "a bare plain idiom capable of the widest range of expressiveness in the lowest registers of the quiet tones of language." It is "never raised above the sound of one man talking to another man at nightfall outdoors," notes Richard Howard, who praises Stafford's "level delivery" in a Parnassus review. Stafford "impresses without dazzling," Sister Bernetta Quinn writes in Poetry magazine; "his poetry succeeds not by excess, but by understatement," says Lynch; and M. L. Rosenthal, writing in the New York Times Book Review, remarks, "Nothing is forced. The poems shape themselves, discover their right images and perception and then end, like songs improvised by a sad, gallantly restrained folk-singer." Lawrence Kramer's review in Parnassus relates Stafford's voice to the kind of moment generally captured in the poems. "Often retrospective, ... Stafford's 'moment' combines a sense of peace or calm, a stillness, and a sense that the self's presence is permitted or acknowledged by presences external to it. To record such moments, ... Stafford has developed a language of radical 'quiet,' but also of great clarity like a whisper without the hoarseness."
It seems to Kramer that though the poems may not always come "wholly from within a steady quiet," nevertheless "the quiet is their goal." Anxiety "because of the discrepancy between the way men live and the way they ought to live" launches many of the poems and "perhaps intensifies in Traveling through the Dark ," Garrison speculates. "As a pacifist, [Stafford] is alarmed at the capacity for slaughter the human race is stockpiling," writes Greg Orfalea in Pebble, Special Issue: A Book of Rereadings in Recent American Poetry—30 Essays. The destruction of man's natural environment is the poet's major concern, according to Lensing and Moran, who feel that he salvages some of the threatened world "through the language of poetry. Family and friends of youth have departed; the Indian civilizations of the past are reduced to captive feebleness. The values by which that lost world existed, however, remain possible; they are indeed a desperately prescribed remedy in the face of perils which Stafford sees on every side."
"More than any other contemporary American poet, Stafford delivers injunctions, prescriptions, prohibitions, and gentle curses," observes Linda Wagner, who notes in Modern Poetry Studies that Stafford's courage "to suggest moral judgments" surprised the literary world of the 1960s. "Relativism," she comments, was "more than rampant" then, and some critics called Stafford's works "preachy"—a criticism about which the poet has often returned comment. Singled out as an example of moral directive is the much-anthologized poem "Traveling through the Dark." The speaker of the poem is driving through the dark and stops to clear a dead doe off the narrow highway, but hesitates before pushing the doe down the embankment when he notices that the animal is pregnant, and that her unborn fawn is still alive. Though the poem states, "I thought hard for us all," Stafford explained to Lofsness that it "is not a poem that is written to support a position that I have chosen, it's just a poem that grows out of the plight I am in as a human being." Later in the interview, he asserted, "I would like to dissociate myself from taking any kind of stance that would imply that being a writer is assuming a power of guidance or insight or anything like that. I'm not that kind of a writer." He is aware, however, that his poems have been "full of issues, positions, and attempted wisdom;" as he reflects in his Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series essay, "I speculate that when you relax, your real self, or the self you accept as yours, takes over; and for me that self had been so formed that my poems were respectful of religion, people, and ideas that were different. [When writing,] I felt like a wide-ranging scout, but I usually drifted into a certain kind of territory."
That Stafford "is, at core, a moralist" in an age when it is fashionable "to think of morality as an empty word" partially explains some of the negative commentary on the poet's books, Orfalea believes. But speaking more generally, Garber maintains that "when the poems don't work, we realize ... that what makes [Stafford] good is also, when it goes wrong, what makes him bad." For instance, the unity of vision behind the poems on the one hand can indicate that Stafford is a major poet, "but can also carry dangers," writes Corey, who adds, "recurrent ideas can become repetitive poems, and plain-speaking can become flat poetry." Secondly, while Kramer concedes that "self may be a surplus commodity in American poetry from Whitman and Dickinson on down," he feels that "the self in Stafford's work is just too small, too willing to rest in the given." Because he is prolific and admittedly reckless when it comes to submitting poems for publication, Stafford's is a large body of work that some critics find "uneven." In addition, there have been "no leaping incremental changes in his works, the kind of thing critics feed on," Orfalea suggests; or, as Howard phrases it, the "poems accumulate, but they do not grow."
When asked to say to what extent criticism had added to his understanding of his own works, Stafford told Ellsworth, "Zero. don't think critics even belong in the consciousness of the writer while he's writing." This characteristic stance has earned the poet a reputation as "a truly vigorous, independent American poet," in Mills's words. As Stafford told Lofsness, "Many writers, artists, and intellectuals, of all kinds, are victims of people around them ... in the sense that they get to needing immediate reactions from human beings ... they get to feeling lonely, and they keep wanting to check what they're doing with all their friends, and that doesn't seem to me to be a good thing to do." And in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, he explains, "I wanted never to adjust my explorations to the anticipated expectations of others." This attitude prompted his wide reading of unorthodox histories and philosophies when he was a student: "It seemed to me that living in a free country and not testing foregone conclusions would be a loss in anyone's life." Stafford's independence was strengthened during his term as a conscientious objector during a popular war and has since sustained his conviction, as Lensing and Moran phrase it, "that some form of retreat" from society is the best way to address its problems.
"It affords a kind of paradox to have someone who has stepped aside from society so often to feel the need to be with society, but I feel both those impulses," the poet told Ellsworth. Orfalea recognizes that Stafford's writings "sustain a tension of a man struggling to be inside his community, when all along his personal beliefs have taken him outside." Far from seeking "opportunities to disagree," he told Lofsness that he "would like to conform as much as possible ... without reducing the willingness to take meaningful stands on essential things." For instance Stafford, who is Poet Laureate for the State of Oregon, was a member of the committee that advised the Idaho legislature not to appoint a Poet Laureate. They recommended instead that a Writer-in-Residence be appointed "to act as a spokesperson between writers in the state and [the government]," Daryln Brewer reports in Coda. In his poems as in his life, seeking reconciliation and keeping in touch with others is a theme as basic to Stafford as keeping in touch with the earth. Through the poems in A Glass Face in the Rain, he "reaches out to the reader with a hand of trust and tenderness, time and again, in images that make small gestures large-hearted and full of importance," notes James Finn Cotter in America. Reviewers often mention a general friendliness in the poems expressed in a conversational tone.
These features combine with Stafford's experimental bent in Segues: A Correspondence in Poetry. Steven Ratiner reports in a Christian Science Monitor review that Stafford and American poet Marvin Bell began this sequence of verse-letters in order "to strengthen their friendship and explore the ways a poem comes into being." "'Segues'," the reviewer explains, "is a term for the transitions inside a piece of music that allow one theme to grow into another." In keeping with this principle, "each successive poem grew out of the subject, tone or language of the previous one." Ratiner believes the resulting collection provides "an intimate glimpse into the work of two accomplished writers" that is also "a refreshingly novel event on the literary scene."
Surveying the poet's work from 1960 to 1983, Christian Century contributor Brent Short called it "deceptively simple." But New York Times Book Review contributor R. W. Flint argues that Stafford's "justly famous simplicities of style and thought are not in the least deceptive or designed to hide coded messages for initiates." Flint deems the poetry "deeply considered, greatly coherent, self-aware writing." Another description, provided by Lynch, names the poetry "a testimony to the power of self-reconciliation and regeneration through the continual process of self-questioning and discovery." Others define the poetry by describing the poet. In American Poetry since 1945: A Critical Survey, Stephen Stepanchev dubs Stafford a "Western Robert Frost, forever amazed by the spaces of America, inner and outer." Orfalea finds Stafford "a unique poet if there ever was one." Garber summarizes that the collected poems document "a vision which is unique in our time. It has now become possible to argue, with full substantiation, not only that Stafford is (or used to be) frequently uneven but also—what we have guessed for some time—that he is one of the best poets we have. The irony of that combination is also peculiarly his own."