William Stafford 1966
“Fifteen” is part of the fourth book of Stafford’s poems, The Rescued Year, published in 1966. Many of the poems in the collection are dramas of the human past which attempt to recapture an event or to confront its having vanished, and which offer enhancement through the memory of the event’s original occurrence combined with the revisit. These poems, like most of Stafford’s, are set in the landscape of the American West, and particularly the Northwest. “Fifteen” is generally considered one of the finest poems in the collection, and typifies Stafford’s sparse and simple narrative style, his friendly and conversational tone, his theme of self-reconciliation and regeneration through self-questioning and the process of discovery.
The poem is also an example of Stafford’s tendency to use small images and gestures to make the reader see larger, important issues and insights. It also typifies Stafford’s use of the open country of the Northwest as the arena for his persona’s discoveries and explorations. “Fifteen” contains a tension found in many of Stafford’s poems, between the natural world and the artificial, mechanized world man has created; and also contains subcategories of these: the intuitive and the rational. In “Fifteen,” Stafford juxtaposes a man-made motorcycle on its side still ticking in the natural high grass, its owner thrown off and lying bloody in the same grass. The persona of the poem then battles between a feeling of impulsive and imaginative flight on the cycle, and the rational response to help the rider and return him to his uprighted bike. Looking
back, the narrator wonders that he had discovered not only the event, but his mixed feelings, thoughts and choice at the young age of fifteen.
Stafford was born in 1914 in Hutchinson, Kansas, and grew up in several small towns on the Kansas plains. Of his early life, he wrote that he was “surrounded by songs and stories and poems, and lyrical splurges of excited talk”; he was also greatly influenced by the beauty of the natural world. Stafford earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Kansas, where he began to write poems and short stories and to develop his social consciousness; he later received his doctorate degree from the University of Iowa. A conscientious objector during World War II, he spent four years in alternative civilian service, primarily in forestry and soil conservation, activities that took him to Arkansas and California. He describes his wartime experiences in his first book, Down in My Heart (1947), a fictionalized account of those years that he called his “master’s ‘creative thesis’.” In the work camps, Stafford formed the habit of rising early in the morning to write, a practice that he maintained throughout his life and one that he found most conducive to composing his poetry. In 1944 he married Dorothy Hope Frantz, the daughter of a minister in the Church of the Brethren, a pacifist church outside Santa Barbara, California. The couple had two sons and two daughters. After teaching in California and working for the the Church World Service relief agency, Stafford was hired in 1948 as an instructor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where he remained until his retirement in 1978.
In the 1950s and 1960s Stafford became involved in war resistance and campus protests. He gave readings of his poetry across the country as well as internationally and wrote several of his poems to aid the causes he supported. In his later years Stafford taught part time in order to concentrate on his writing. He won the National Book Award for poetry in 1963 for Traveling through the Dark. In 1981 Stafford received the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and in 1992 he was given the Western States Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. He died the following year.
South of the bridge on Seventeenth
I found back of the willows one summer
day a motorcycle with engine running
as it lay on its side, ticking over
slowly in the high grass. I was fifteen.
I admired all that pulsing gleam, the
shiny flanks, the demure headlights
fringed where it lay; I led it gently
to the road, and stood with that
companion, ready and friendly. I was fifteen.
We could find the end of a road, meet
the sky on out Seventeenth. I thought about
hills, and patting the handle got back a
confident opinion. On the bridge we indulged
a forward feeling, a tremble. I was fifteen.
Thinking, back farther in the grass I found
the owner, just coming to, where he had flipped
over the rail. He had blood on his hand, was pale—
I helped him walk to his machine. He ran his hand
over it, called me good man, roared away.
I stood there, fifteen.
The opening two lines significantly place the event of the poem in a kind of secret natural setting. We are given a visual image of a place that is, if not deep in seclusion, at least on the edge of town, out of sight of anyone traveling the road, “back of the willows.” This could refer to pussywillows, but probably refers to willow trees, which are free-flowing in their long branches, and offer a wild kind of camouflage. The “bridge” may be seen as a symbol of a division between the town with its man-made structures and morals, and nature with its mysteries. Perhaps Stafford establishes the word “Seventeenth” in line 1 to emphasize the youthfulness of the persona’s age of 15. Perhaps it allows us to feel, by the end of the poem, the emotional and maturity level difference between being 15 and being 17, as well as between boyhood and manhood. This may cause the reader to feel the exquisite youthful reaction to the event as experienced by a 15 year old.
These lines give us a precise picture of what the youth discovers in his exploration into nature—a motorcycle in the grass. Stafford’s language here is simple on the surface, but renders a solid underlying treasure for the reader because in the image of the motorcycle in the grass, we are given at once a smashing juxtaposition of the man-made, artificial machine against the natural high grasses in the spot secluded by nature’s willows. This is the contrast of the Greek Gods Apollo and Dionysus, the fiery sun versus the moon and the muddy earth, the skyscraper versus the woods. The natural and man-made are intricately interwoven by Stafford in the engine’s “ticking” like a human heart. The phrase, “I was fifteen” in line 5, at this point in the poem, appears to be no more than a bit of narrative fact; it does, however, begin a pedestal on which Stafford builds an ever-increasing emotional reaction in the reader as the poem progresses.
Here Stafford causes the reader to feel the persona’s immediate emotional intensity and psychological connection to the cycle by using personification. That is, he gives the cycle human female characteristics so that the boy relates to the piece of downed machinery in an emotion so intense it is nearly sexual. He is drawn to its “pulsing gleam” which lets us feel the machine is alive; it has “flanks” and “demure” headlights like a girl’s eyes; it has “fringes,” perhaps like those on a dancer’s costume. And the boy is seduced by it so that he lifts it up and leads it “gently” out to the road, calling it his “companion.” Here the repeated phrase“I was fifteen” serves to increase the reader’s sense of fear that the youthful adventurer might be over his head in his exploration and his possible decision to take off on the bike. It produces a tension in the poem.
In this stanza, Stafford seems to allow time to stand still momentarily while his young persona lets his imagination create a kind of wispy thread between the real and unreal; the limitation of his youth and the lifetime that lies ahead of him; between the physical spot he’s just left and the adventuresome, open road ahead. In line 12 Stafford repeats the word “Seventeenth” which has the effect of reinforcing the time left ahead of the youth, the urge to tear forward into it with his companion, the “confident” cycle. In lines 14 and 15, there is an indulging on the bridge, a forward feeling, a tremble. Here, the bridge seems to act as a symbol, not only of a division between town and country, but also of a division between the real and the imagined, restrictions and freedom, structure and breaking free, the rational mind versus the irrational emotion. Use of the phrase “I was fifteen” here brings home to the reader the knowledge that the indulging of that moment of imaginative flight into adventure on the bridge (the “forward feeling”), accompanied by a “tremble,” renders the persona a changed person. He can never be quite the same again; his imagination has been sent beyond the frame that was his thought and feeling prior to the indulgence.
The word “thinking” in line 16 contains a release from the tension of the previous stanza which is bursting with the youthful persona’s impulse to act on his imaginative irrational impulses. The rational mind takes over and the youth finds the rider. He had “flipped over the rail,” which is perhaps a message from Stafford that life holds sudden, unexpected changes and life-altering obstacles. The phrase also acts to make the reader feel that the persona had nearly “flipped over the rail” into being seduced away on the bike. Again in this stanza Stafford presents the natural versus the man-made; we are given the image of soft skin injured by the mechanical device, blood loss caused by the accident. Now the pale rider becomes the persona’s momentary companion, as the bike had been. The youth leads him to the bike where the rider reconnects to the man-made machine by running his hand over it as he would a woman. When he speaks to
Topics for Further Study
- Think about something impetuous and daring that you almost did when you were younger, that still looks appealing to you at certain times. Write a poem like “Fifteen” about the event. Avoid telling about the debate you went through about whether or not to do it, letting your descriptions alone convey the appeal.
- The speaker of this poem does not say what he thinks of the injured motorcycle rider. What do you think the boy’s opinion is? Does the boy admire him? Is he disappointed?
the persona he calls him a “good man” before he roars away. The youth knows, unquestionably, that he is closer to manhood than he was before the event occurred, and also that he has had a seductive experience of what the adventure to manhood will be like.
The final line solidifies the ideas and tensions of the entire poem. It makes us feel the impact of the roaring away of the cycle rider through use of the word “stood”; it is as though the boy has become fastened to the ground unable to move, paralyzed by his own youth, while the cycle, as the symbol of high adventure, roars away from him. We are aware that the persona, who is now an adult looking back on this experience, is still affected by his memory of it, and that the experience might still act to motivate the persona to find new roads in the world and in his imagination.
Alienation and Loneliness
Although this poem does not give us any background information about the fifteen-year-old boy, we can safely guess, from his excitement about finding the motorcycle, that he had found his life lacking. Another boy might have imagined showing his discovery off to his friends in order to increase his social standing, or selling it in order to increase his financial standing, but this boy dreams of escaping—leaving his current situation behind and taking his chances with the unknown. At the beginning of the third stanza, the boy’s vague plan is stated as “We could find the end of a road”—indicating a desolate place where no one else would be interested in going to or coming from—and it continues with “meet / the sky on out Seventeenth.” The exaggeration of meeting the sky indicates how far the boy is willing to go to escape his current situation, while the mention of a local street, and not a very high-numbered one at that, shows the boy to be weak in imagination and unable to fantasize about a truly exotic locale.
While this boy dreams of getting away, he also responds to objects as holding the potential for friendship, indicating that this is something that is missing from his life. He refers to the motorcycle as a “companion, ready and friendly”; he communicates with it, receiving its opinion in exchange for a friendly pat; and, just on the verge of taking off, the speaker uses “we” to describe anticipation as belonging to both boy and machine. For the boy to project such human feelings onto the motorcycle indicates a lack of personal involvement in his life. By contrast, there is no such connection with the motorcycle’s owner, even though the boy provides assistance to the owner. There is physical contact, as the fifteen-year-old helps the owner walk, but in calling the boy a good man, the owner tosses off the sort of impersonal compliment that a young man can expect will please a younger man: it shows courtesy while retaining the emotional distance that alienates the boy.
Nature vs. Machine
This is a rare poem in which machinery is shown in a more positive light than the natural setting around it, possibly because the point of view is that of a fifteen-year-old boy with a narrow range of experiences; he is familiar with nature but new to the wonders of technology. The location of the action—south of the bridge (implying a river or stream), in back of the willows—is an area that is not entirely urbanized. This is where wild growth still occurs, and the fact that one road rides off to “meet the sky” clearly indicates a rural town or, at best, a fringe suburb. The fact that the speaker of the poem was in the high grass on a summer day is conveyed without comment, as if it was nothing special but a common occurrence. What is special in this poem is the motorcycle. The language used to describe it makes it attractive not only for its power, but also for the beauty the young man sees in it: the gleam and shine make it sound almost otherworldly, while the words “demure” and “fringed” indicate that the speaker sees an almost feminine beauty in it. The bond that the boy shares with this machine becomes tighter until it reaches an almost sexual level near the end of stanza 3: “we indulged / a forward feeling, a tremble.” There are indications that this infatuation is a product of the character’s youth, and that the mature voice telling the story does not entirely approve of the way he used to feel. The strongest evidence of this is in the constant repetition of the phrase “I was fifteen,” as if the speaker feels so differently now that he has to remind himself of why he felt as he did then. Another indicator that the machine could not provide the salvation that the boy seems to hope for is the pale, bloody condition in which the motorcycle rider is found. This poem glamorized the motorcycle in a way that is common for a fifteen-year-old, and the owner shows some of that boyish infatuation in the way he runs his hand over it, but the blood and danger present keep the reader from idolizing the machine the way these characters do.
Rite of Passage
Fifteen is an age at which people in American society are bound to feel frustrated, having grown into close approximations of adult bodies and being within sight of legal independence, while at the same time being unable to reach out and grasp control of their lives. This poem stresses that particular age as being just short of the ability to do what one wants. The boy in the poem appreciates the freedom and power that riding the motorcycle could give him, but the closest he comes to the actual experience is indulging in “a forward feeling, a tremble.” Why? We know, from the vagueness of his plan, that he is simply not mature enough yet to ride off by himself, but in the poem it is the sudden appearance of the motorcycle’s owner that stops him. What is not examined thoroughly, though, is the fact that the boy stopped his own departure in order to go to the man who had been thrown into the grass. The poem leaves it up to the reader to follow the thought process that convinces him to abandon his plan. He may have been concerned about the missing rider and gone to look for him, or he may have given up on the idea of riding and returned to the grass before even realizing that the rider was there. If there is any question about when this young man will be ready to exercise his independence, Stafford gives us a clue: the road could have been named anything, but he chose to name it “Seventeenth.” The symbolic association of Seventeenth with a bridge and the distant horizon indicates that the fifteen-year-old has only a short time to go before he can assert his freedom.
“Fifteen” is like a traditional poem in its formalist, symmetrical division into four stanzas of five lines each, and the final line. It is unlike traditional poetry in that the poem employs no consistent accented meter such as iamb, trochee, dactyl, or anapest; but is written, instead, in a free-verse narrative style. It contains its own felt rhythms, with the accents varied within each line. The poem has no formal rhyme scheme, but organically connects the ideas and images in the various stanzas through use of the phrase “I was fifteen” at the end of the first three stanzas and, again, echoing and reinforcing it in the final line. The poem also contains internal slant-rhyme such as in “South” and “found” in lines 1 and 2, and in “ran” and “hand” in line 19. The poem also contains alliteration, where words near each other begin with the same letter or sound, such as the “b” sound in “bridge” and “back” in lines 1 and 2, and the “s” sound in “South,” “seventeenth,” and “summer” in lines 1 and 2. Stafford consciously controls the poem’s rhythm by choosing where to break the lines. Where the sentences continue on to the next line, the line is called enjambed, and where the sentence ends at the end of a line, the line is called end-stopped.
Youth Culture: “Fifteen” was published in 1966, a time when the wants and ideas of young people were exerting themselves as social forces in the United States. In the next few years, the “youth culture”—often referred to as the “counter culture” because it valued ideas that were counter to the values of the older, dominant generation—would be exhaustively discussed, photographed, quoted, and opposed in every corner of the media. Some critics suggest that many of the values associated with the 1960s youth movement were valued precisely
Compare & Contrast
- 1966: The National Organization For Women was founded to take action toward bringing about equality of the genders.
1972: The Equal Rights Amendment, which stated that a citizen’s rights could not be “denied or abridged” on account of gender, was ratified by Congress.
1981: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
1982: After 10 years on state ballots, the ERA failed to be ratified by the states and was defeated.
1992: The National Organization for Women (NOW) sponsored a march in Washington D.C. that was attended by a record 750,000 people.
Today: Women’s rights is still a developing issue.
- 1966: “Black Power,” a phrase coined by Stok-ley Charmichael, the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, caused a division between two of the nation’s preeminent organizations for blacks: the Congress of Racial Equality endorsed the phrase, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People felt it emphasized a combative stance.
1968: Race riots broke out all over the country following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
1984: Jesse Jackson became the first black to run for the presidential nomination of a major political party.
1989: General Colin Powell was the first black person appointed to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
1995: The Million Man March, organized by controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, brought hundreds of thousands of black men to Washington D.C.
- 1966: The Vietnam War was protested on college campuses across the country. Protestors took control of administration buildings and harassed representatives from companies that manufactured munitions.
1968: President Johnson decided not to run for reelection, primarily because of his unpopularity due to the war.
1973: The Vietnam peace pacts were signed, and the United States’ troop withdrawal began.
1990-91: The United States joined a coalition of countries to force Iraq out of the country it had invaded, Kuwait. President Bush’s population soared.
Today: “Vietnam syndrome” is the phrase used for getting involved in a complicated situation with no pre-established goal to determine what will be the right time to quit.
because they were offensive to traditional American values. A direct connection can be seen between the older generation’s outrage at free love, opposition to the government, and use of illegal narcotics and the enthusiasm that the younger generation had for these. In 1966, William Stafford was 52 years old and would, therefore, have been solidly situated within the age group that felt its morals resisted; at fifteen, the boy in the poem is too young to be an active part of the rebellion, although he seems to feel the need to escape society’s pressures. Stafford was looking from both sides at the age group that was gaining political power and international attention.
Every generation has had a struggle between youth and age because the “status quo”—made up of the existing moral, social, and economic values that dominate a society—will always be questioned by those who are going to inherit the power to change it. While the process of growing up and inheriting control has always been awkward, it usually ends up with only slight social changes taking place from one generation to the next, unless some cataclysmic event, such as a major war, deepens the division between generations. Starting in the 1950s, several small but deeply rooted social trends made the separation between youth and maturity expand, causing a “generation gap,” as it was referred to by the mid-sixties. One of the most obvious factors was the Baby Boom; soldiers returning home when World War II ended in 1945 married and within a few years started families. The economy expanded after the war, allowing families to keep having children, reversing a centuries-old decline in population. In the 1950s social scientists recognized this new generation as having different ethics than previous generations, and they reported on the growing trend in “juvenile delinquency,” which gave youths a separate identity from their elders. Like any distinct culture, the new generation developed a unique art form to express its values, desires, fears, and so on. In this case, due to rising technology in high-fidelity recording and broadcasting, the art form was music, specifically rock and roll. From its start, rock was music of rebellion. The fact that older people did not understand its appeal was part of its appeal. Established organizations such as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which distributes the prestigious Grammy Awards, did not recognize rock music until the mid-1960s, well after it was the dominant economic force in the music industry.
Using techniques that had proven successful for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s in helping change society’s view of laws that were unfair to blacks, young people took to the streets to publicly protest the war in Vietnam. America had no direct interest in the outcome of the war, but President Kennedy first sent advisors to Vietnam in 1962 and President Johnson committed troops in 1964. To the military strategists and presidential advisors who supported the war, it was worth fighting in order to keep the Soviet Union, who supported the North Vietnamese, from spreading Communism into South Vietnam. For older, patriotic Americans who remembered World War II, supporting one’s country was reason enough to support government policy. To the young people who actually had to fire weapons and be fired at, though, such abstract thinking was absurd. With its own identity, its own culture, its own art, and an identifiable enemy, the young generation felt free to follow its own moral principles, and so behaviors that had previously been forbidden, such as drug use and out-of-wedlock sex, were found acceptable. By 1966, this youth culture that would come to define the last half of the 1960s in popular imagination, was well established in larger urban areas and was spreading its ethos of peace and freedom throughout the land.
Motorcycles: For the generation that valued freedom and that had grown up while the interstate highway system was being built in the 1950s, the motorcycle stood as a symbol of independence. Motorcycles were invented in 1865 by German engineer Gottleib Daimler and had always had a small cluster of enthusiasts. They came to the public’s attention as a symbol of youthful rebellion in 1953, with the release of the movie The Wild One. In the film, Marlon Brando, the top young box-office star of the day, played the leader of a motorcycle gang that terrorized a small town for no particular reason. “What are you rebelling against?” a townswoman asked Johnny, the Brando character, and coolly he responded, “What’ve you got?” Johnny fell in love with a good girl in town, and she rescued him from a beating at the hands of an ugly mob, providing a romantic role model for misunderstood youths everywhere. In the following years, motorcycle gangs were to become more involved in organized crime and they ruled by codes of violence, but throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the dominant impression of the motorcycle was of freedom. “Saintly motorcyclists” were mentioned in Allan Ginsburg’s 1954 anti-authority poem, “Howl.” Even movies that emphasized the brutality of motorcycle gangs, with such titles as The Wild Angels, The Angry Breed, and The Cycle Savages, contained or implied respect for bikers as outlaws who were free to ride outside of conventional morality.
The nation’s romantic fascination with motorcycles came to an abrupt end in 1970, at a concert at Altmont Race Track in California. The Rolling Stones, who themselves had a reputation for danger and rebellion, hired one of the country’s most notorious motorcycle gangs, the Hell’s Angels, to act as security guards at a huge concert that was their response to the Woodstock festival. In an ironic twist, while Woodstock became an international symbol of peaceful cooperation, the Altmont concert ended on tragedy when one of the biker-security guards stabbed a fan to death when he tried to push forward to the stage. After that, motorcycle gangs have seldom been portrayed as misunderstood youths or as brawling buccaneers, but are most often shown on television and in film as violent criminals.
Stafford is generally considered to be “Whitmanesque” in both his subject matter and language. Like Walt Whitman, Stafford uses common language, uses the first-person voice in a universal, democratic appeal in a blend of “I” and “you” which equals all of “us”; and Stafford, like Whitman, uses a poetic landscape made up of the natural world, finds a mysticism in nature, a potential for spiritualism. Like Whitman, Stafford often juxtaposes the Apollonian/male and Dionysian/female—the artificial and the natural—in vivid ways. Stafford’s poetic structure, or topography, does not generally contain the extremely long lines of many of Whitman’s poems, but Stafford’s poems are made of the same kind of flowing, pulsing rhythms that seem to echo the open, natural environment.
Critic Linda Wagner, in an article entitled “William Stafford’s Plain-Style,” published in 1975 in Modern Poetry Studies, points out the similarities between Stafford and Whitman. She writes that Stafford, as a poet, is “unquestionably like Walt Whitman, especially in some early poems.” Wagner argues that both Stafford’s sentence-rhythms and tone are Whitmanesque. She points to Stafford’s continuing rhythm within a poem, “phrase piled on clause,” and how it serves to consciously keep momentum going until Stafford chooses to stop it, “often abruptly, for impact.” Rather than having a single, uniform line or sentence length, Wagner writes, Stafford employs rambling lines followed by short ones. Another Whitmanesque aspect of Stafford’s poetry, Wagner argues, is Stafford’s choice of the everyday or common life imagery. But, most of all, Wagner states, it is Stafford’s tone that is most like Whitman. It is the tone that expresses “a heavy responsibility to share his views with other human beings.” It is the tone that shows that “Stafford is concerned with the way man is living, the way man has to become himself.” Wagner writes that Stafford is willing to take the same risks Whitman took in his poetry, asserting: “Like Whitman, Stafford sends us looking for our own sturdy and common, but real songs.”
Frederick Garber, in his 1980 critical review “On Richard Hugo and William Stafford” in The American Poetry Review, discusses Stafford’s collection The Rescued Year, in which “Fifteen” was published. He writes that the poems reflect the “essential Stafford” in their focus on what he calls 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.” Garber, like Wagner, states that it is the tone of Stafford’s work that should be emphasized, his “vast compassion ... for all of us.” Garber points to Stafford’s American West as “always west of where we are,” how it is the place of “nature’s secrecy.” He points to what may be considered the cause of poetic tension in Stafford’s work in his discussion of Stafford’s West: “What is out there is limitless in its secrecy, but our need to go out there to find it is equally limitless .... West is a direction ... but also a state of being, a condition of the world in which we live.”
Sharon Ann Jaeger
Sharon Ann Jaeger is a freelance writer and editor at INTERTEXT. She currently resides in Anchorage, AK. In the following essay, Jaeger explains how Stafford turns a seemingly ordinary incident into an important moment in the subject’s transition from boyhood to manhood.
If the power of written language derives from the spoken word, as William Stafford held, a lyric poem such as “Fifteen” achieves its compelling effects through the way that words bring alive a speaker’s voice. “Fifteen” is in many respects a classic coming-of-age poem. It is clear, however, that in Stafford’s view, the true rites of passage lie within; moreover, to gauge by the way the ending breaks off unresolved, perhaps one never is done with them. In relaying a crucial encounter in his past, the narrator must also come to terms with it.
Just as a photographer uses the phenomenon of depth of field to focus on a central aspect of a scene and allow other elements to blur, the poet has selected essential details and stripped away the rest. This canny strategy of leaving much unsaid forces readers to forge their own understanding of what all of this might mean. The youth at the center of the remembered scene is universalized, stripped of external particulars. The repetition of his age becomes his identity: at the time of the remembered episode that constitutes the poem, “fifteen” was what the youth was, and all that he then knew. “Fifteen” is reiterated, an insistent refrain, from the title of the poem through the last word, foregrounding a turning point in the cycle of human experience.
The notion of stages on the journey of life is archetypal—the same riddle that the Sphinx, in another tale, posed to young Oedipus. On a deeper level, the conceptual metaphor “life is a journey” structures the relations of elements in this poem. As is evident in “Fifteen,” surface-level imagery and metaphor should be consonant with the deeper conceptual metaphors for a poem to cohere. Conceptual metaphors, as identified by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, operate on the level of ideas; thus Stafford does not need to spell out that life is a journey because this metaphor has become part of the cultural context that he shares with his readers. A metaphor is a transfer from one domain of knowledge to another. Here the reader, whether consciously or intuitively, maps knowledge about journeys onto certain aspects of life to yield new insights into or about life. Like a journey, life has a destination; the boy thinks, “We could find the end of a road, meet / the sky ....” Both journeys and lives have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with stages set off by markers. Thus, the youth is under, or “south” of, seventeen, where streets delineate years. From the young man’s visual and mental perspective, when he envisions the “end of a road somewhere” with the horizon of the unknown future beckoning, death seems very remote, and the future appears full of promise. On such a momentous and uncertain journey, who would wish to travel alone? The solitary rider has his trusty vehicle for companion. For the boy, who invests the cycle with human qualities, the motorcycle is more than a set of “wheels”; it metaphorically takes on the qualities of a young woman. The closing shot, a quick fadeout, offers a stark visual contrast between the boy on foot, literally left standing there, and the mystery man riding off into the distance on his powerful steed, like a hero of the Wild West.
In “Fifteen,” the transition from boyhood to manhood and from merely dreaming about the future to actually striking out on one’s own, is presented as a liminal moment—like the “bridge on Seventeenth,” a threshold to be crossed. Life requires both going on and going beyond. In sharing a moment of great significance for him, the narrator contrasts his adolescent self, full of dreams, with
What Do I Read Next?
- Charles Altieri’s 1979 publication Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960s barely mentions Stafford, but it gives a good view of what was happening in poetry at the same time that the poem was written.
- The editor of The American Poetry Review, Stephen Berg, edited the collection Singular Voices: American Poetry Today in 1985. Stafford and many of his significant peers are included. One of the nice things about this collection is that the poets each provide a page or two of text discussing their poems.
- Paul Goodman was a poet and short-story writer, as well as being a respected writer in the social sciences. His groundbreaking 1956 book, Growing Up Absurd, is still considered a powerful analysis of the social forces that affected the post-World War II generation. This book should be read by anyone working with juveniles or interested in 1950s and 1960s society.
- William Stafford’s poetry was collected in 1977 in Stories That Could Be True: New and Collect Poems. More recent collections are A Glass Face In the Rain (1982), An Oregon Message (1987), and A Place Where There Ain’t Any People (1988).
- The narrator of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye (first published in 1945 and reprinted continuously since) is just a little older than the speaker of this poem, and, like him, is not quite ready to take control of his life. This novel is profound and fun, especially for readers of high school and college age.
an older, experienced self caught up in introspection. Although the poem is related in the first person and, thus, gains the sense of immediacy in one-on-one communication, the tone is oddly distanced. The speaker makes the exterior scene come alive by providing vivid sensory detail, but conveys only through metaphor and indirection the interior emotions that moved him as a boy. Stafford the poet presents this event as symbolic of larger human experience; the speaker in the poem, however, makes no such claim. The poem stops short of delivering an epiphany, or a moment of existential insight frozen in time. Again, it is up to the reader to figure things out.
To appreciate the complexity of this apparently simple poem, it is important to perceive the ways in which Stafford structures spatial and temporal perspectives to create what I call a symbolic topography within the world of the poem, and also to exploit the layered, mutually referential dimensions of the speaker’s past, present, and even virtual future selves, which exist in what Gilles Fauconnier describes as different “mental spaces.” In one mental space, of course, there is the real-life poet William Stafford, a historical figure, who writes “Fifteen,” which is published on a page in a book and is read. Then, in another dimension or mental space, there is the narrator who is the voice of the poem. At the core of the episode, and in another mental space, is the boy’s consciousness (as reconstructed from/in memory by the speaker of the poem).
The tension between these mental spaces accounts for and can even be said to create some of the tug of emotions in “Fifteen.” Within that fictional world of the poem there exists a dimension in which the youth experiences his consciousness as the center of his own fifteen-year-old universe. This phenomenon is mapped onto the physical space of the poem, where the boy’s consciousness functions as a point of origin on a Cartesian grid, in which the horizontal plane of earth and the vertical plane of sky intersect. In the symbolic topography of this poem, the “bridge on Seventeenth” becomes symbolic of an age of independence that is so near and yet so far. The older stranger, in contrast, has the run of the road. Because the future is unknown and the youth’s experience is limited, he can only vaguely imagine what lies beyond that horizon. Not having been thrown from a motorcycle yet himself, he does not identify with the adult rider who, like most people, has met an obstacle that has quite literally thrown him. Instead, the boy projects into the motorcycle, which seems to reflect back to him a “confident opinion,” his estimation of his own ability to handle any problems that might occur. In the boy’s assessment, the ups and downs of life are just hills—and he is confident can handle those.
The story proceeds in strict chronological order, delivering an uncomplicated plotline from beginning to end (just as life itself unfolds): the boy discovers the motorcycle, takes it in hand, resists the impulse to take a joyride, realizes that the owner must be nearby, like a Good Samaritan helps the injured traveler to get back on the road, and then watches as man and cycle “roared away.” In counterpoint to the linear structure of the core story, the frame in which the narrator tells the story constitutes a form of flashback; he knows from experience what will lie beyond the horizon that fills the boy’s gaze. Like a master painter who knows when one stroke more would be too much, Stafford synchronizes the end of this poem with the end of the anecdote.
The narrator’s distanced attitude is shown by the major shift in the visual perspective at the end. The first “perspective point,” to use linguist Leonard Talmy’s term, has its origin in the boy’s seeing from a standpoint embedded in the landscape—“South of the bridge on Seventeenth”—while at the end of the poem, a bird’s-eye view sums things up: “I stood there, fifteen.” At the end, the youth is viewed from both temporal and spatial distance—in the narrator’s mind’s eye and the reader’s eye, respectively. The distancing strategy of a perspectival shift is reinforced by the poet’s enriching the first stage of the poem with vivid sensory details while leaving the ending unelaborated and unadorned.
By accident (both literally and figuratively), while exploring behind the willows, the youth comes upon a motorcycle—the embodiment of many a teenager’s fantasy. “Ticking,” the cycle seems magical and alive: lying “on its side” in the tall grass; partly hidden, with its headlights, “demure” like a young woman’s eyes; and “fringed” by the grass blades. Stafford shows the youth discovering each part of the machine while the poem’s surface metaphors convey his emotions and desires. Using specific detail to bring the scene alive in several sensory modalities—sight, hearing, and touch—Stafford first provides a visual setting, the machine transformed into “gleam” by the intense summer sun; men renders the sound of the motor, “pulsing” like a heart beating faster; and then shares tie tactile experience of the youth’s trying out the cycle for size, “patting the handle” and sensing a “forward feeling” in both human being and machine. Here, as if vision were touch, the motorcycle seems to reach out to the boy, who draws nearer to take it in hand. Likewise, the owner’s first impulse after getting his cycle back is to “r[u]n his hand / over it.”
The speaking voice in any poem is not to be identified with the real-life or “historical” author, of course; but in many (though hardly all) cases, the “I” in a poem shares some of the writer’s characteristics. Creative writers often mine their personal experience, and Stafford doubtless draws on his here. “Fifteen” appeared in The Rescued Year, a collection that included many early poems looking back upon the poet’s Kansas boyhood. With his previous volume Traveling Through the Dark, which had received the National Book Award, Stafford’s readership had widened to a national one, but he always considered himself “an Osage orange, hedgewood Kansan,” as noted in Kansas Poems of William Stafford. Bom in Hutchinson, Kansas, in 1914, he spent many of his earlier years in other Kansas towns with names marked by the history of the American push westward, echoes of a drive for freedom, the myth of the New Eden, and of a Native American presence preceding the settlers: Liberal, Garden City, El Dorado, and Wichita. Stafford was keenly aware of the subtle dangers of his propensity for retrospection, however; as he remarked once at a poetry reading, “I realize it’s all too easy for me to fall into this nostalgia thing—‘Remember the time we drove the Model T ... to El Dorado?’—I want to switch now to now. I don’t want to be the nostalgia man.”
In keeping with the allegorical tone of “Fifteen,” Stafford leaves the identity and characteristics of the listener unspecified, allowing the reader to slot him-or herself into the listener’s role. The person to whom narrator tells a story, or, to use narratologist Gerald Prince’s key term, the “narratee,” is a vital part of the cycle of communication, which, without the narratee, would remain incomplete. Thus, the process of the reader’s identification with the speaker—that is, of the narratee with the narrator—is a form of bonding, akin to the unspoken understanding of the admiring youth and his taciturn hero, the mystery rider.
Not just any narratee will do for an exchange that is psychologically freighted—and this small story is highly charged. The narratee, after all, reciprocates in the storytelling exchange by the quality of his or her listening. In Stafford’s work, telling stories is a form of mythmaking that gives meaning to experience. Not just every person, but everything has its story to convey if one will but listen. A number of his other poems depict the poet as listening to the nonhuman world, while in still other poems, Stafford gives voice to the life stories of people who cannot do so for themselves. In this listening, poet or reader alike must attend to the unspoken meaning as much as to what happens on the surface.
A final, sometimes overlooked element of storytelling is the narrator’s motivation: why is he telling us/himself this? Though the youth is left standing there at the end—in the eternal literary present—with a lot of growing up to do and feeling the tug between dreams and desires, the brief encounter has transformed his perception of himself; he is now a “good man.” To lay hold of that affirming moment once more may be the point of the poem, though the reader will never know for sure.
Source: Sharon Ann Jaeger, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Linda W. Wagner
Wagner discusses Stafford’s poetic voice and the various characteristics of his poetry in this excerpt.
When William Stafford’s poems took the literati by surprise in the early sixties, they did so for a variety of reasons. In an op-pop culture, with relativism more than rampant, Stafford dared to suggest moral judgments. People were good—or bad—because of their actions, and his “Bess,” Ella, and Sublette met that judgment head-on. So did his craft: “Walking along in this not quite prose way / we both know it is not quite prose we speak.” Stafford had written poems for a long time; his craft was no accident. The use of homey language and idiom, the running sentence rhythms and casual throwaway lines, the recurrence of Midwestern locations and characters were all an integral part of the plain-style. Unquestionably like Walt Whitman’s, especially in some early poems, the voice has in recent writing changed only slightly.
Sentence rhythm is one of the most visible characteristics of Stafford’s poetry.... the continuing rhythm, phrase piled on clause; commas used to connect elements rather than separating punctuation to isolate—the poet consciously keeps momentum going in a poem until he chooses to stop it, often abruptly, for impact. The opening lines of the title poem for his National Book Award collection show some of the ways he orders his sentence—here trochaic—to create motion.
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River Road.
Opening with the participial phrase is one device for augmenting the short sentence (I found a deer). That the key adjective follows its noun (deer / dead rather than dead deer) is also a way of creating force both of emphasis and rhythm. The poet keeps the motion going, but decellerating, with the almost unnecessary two prepositional phrases (“on the edge” could be deleted—except for accent and internal rhyme). Ezra Pound, working from his Imagist principles, would have done some pruning here; Whitman would have eagerly kept the voice sounds going.
Stafford in this poem stays with standard English. At times his use of a colloquialism helps him bridge the formal pattern, often devisive (i.e., his sentence unit is longer than many people’s, and he sometimes has to work hard to avoid ending a sentence before he is ready to). “You come a river, then our town / where summer domes the elms that hide/ the river, which—a lurking home—/ reflects in windows all the clouds / that drift the countryside.” In “Conservative,” the idiom “come a river” helps to launch the casual accumulative sentence. Come also joins with town, domes, home, and clouds to form a pattern of assonance that tonally unifies the long sentence.
In this excerpt, as in this from “In Dear Detail, by Ideal Light,” Stafford relies on the use of commas and line division to mark the end of separate phrases and yet keep the sentence moving (in contrast, the same lines printed with no punctuation would be nearly unreadable):
There, for the rest of the years,
by not going there, a person could believe
some porch looking south,
and steady in the shade—maybe you,
Rescued by how the hills
happened to arrive where they are,...
“a person could believe,” “Rescued by how the hills”—the idiomatic phrasing builds in rationale for the sometimes ungrammatical constructions, constructions which become more than idiosyncratic when seen as a part of any complete poem.
Rather than having one uniform line or sentence length, Stafford is at his best in many poems by using the prose tactic of contrasting longer sentences with short ones. The somewhat rambling sentences quoted previously are often followed with short, emphatic statements. The rhetorical method of alternating sentence length appears to good effect in poems like “The Last Day,” “At the Grave of My Brother,” “Remember,” “On Quitting a Little College,” “The Peters Family,” and “Some Autumn Characters.” In the last poem, the short sentence opens a stanza, followed by a typically long, accumulative one:
And One Afternoon each year
is yours. It stands again
across a certain field and is the same—
a day no year can hold, but always
warm, paused in the light, looking
back and forward, where everything counts
and every bush, tree, field, or
friend will always wave.
This passage is striking in that the lengthy description remains active (paused in the light, looking / back and forward ... wave). More common to the alternation of long-short patterns is closing with the shorter sentence, as in “The Peters Family”:
You couldn’t analyze those people—
a no-pattern had happened to them:
their field opened and opened,
level, and more, then forever,
never crossed. Their world went everywhere.
This concluding sentence begins with two discrete elements, lines one and two, signalled by punctuation; and then begins the characteristic Stafford run-on with the accumulation of phrases. Ending with “never crossed” would leave a great deal to the reader’s inference; it is again characteristic to choose a summary, definite ending for the poem—the last four words, a separate sentence.
Noticeable in each of these passages is Stafford’s use of phrases and clauses to build and modify ideas—mortared with the omnipresent comma—instead of his structuring separate sentences for different elements of thought. Other devices that the poet uses frequently in achieving the effect of speech rhythms are the inclusion of dialogue and of broken sentence patterns (“Haven’t seen it, though—/ just know it”). His use of dialogue is surprisingly sparse, considering its long tradition in modern American poetry (Pound, Williams, Gregory, Frost, Eliot, MacLeish); when he does use it, however, it is often as a conclusion, as in “Before the Big Storm,”
When they mention your name,
our houses out there in the wind
creak again in the storm;
and I lean from our play, wherever I am,
to you, quiet at the edge of that town:
“All the world is blowing away.”
“It is almost daylight.”
“Are you warm?”
... Stafford’s use of dialogue, or actual speech fragments, parallels his alternation of long and short sentences. He appears to use them as contrast, to vary texture, to add the telling image to a line of conventional and sometimes less colorful description. The use of dialogue also permits even more inclusion of idiomatic speech patterns.
Although a good part of the impact of the poetic plain-style comes from Stafford’s sentence rhythms, another contributing device is his choice of imagery. No matter what he writes about, he incorporates images of common living—i.e., “The View from Here”:
In Antarctica drooping their little shoulders
like bottles the penguins stand, small,
sad, black—and the wind
bites hard over them....
Beginning with the exotic Antarctica, he still turns quickly to the commonplace with shoulders like bottles, the series of noncommittal adjectives, and the hard-biting wind, reminiscent of all the Midwestern winds of which he writes. The same kind of impulse is evident in “Holding in the Sky,” a Romantic poem in which he attempts to describe spaciousness, of both time and distance. Instead of using an abstraction of “world enough and time,” his turn of phrase is “We were traveling between a mountain and Thursday, / holding pages back on the calendar.”
Sometimes Stafford’s tendency to use the concrete and commonplace creates unusual imagery, highly effective in its juxtaposition of common states of being. The ending image of “Time’s Exile,” for example, describes the evolution of the line in terms of the natural image of sunflowers, one of Stafford’s most successful conclusions in any of his poems:
I am a man who detours through the park,
a man like those we used to meet back there—
Whose father had a son,
who has a son,
who finds his way by sunflowers through the dark.
Another of Stafford’s characteristic uses of imagery is to parallel man’s condition in natural occurrences. “Pods of summer crowd around the door; /1 take them in the autumn of my hands,” he writes in “Fall Wind.” Again, in “Lit Instructor,” he describes the awkward professor as a bird:
Day after day up there beating my wings
with all of the softness truth requires
I feel them shrug whenever I pause:
they class my voice among tentative things....
In many of his poems, the initial image runs throughout the poem; imagery from nature is particularly easy to use in this kind of analogy. In
“Sentence rhythm is one of the most visible characteristics of Stafford’s poetry.... the continuing rhythm, phrase piled on clause; commas used to connect elements rather than separating punctuation to isolate—the poet consciously keeps momentum going in a poem until he chooses to stop it, often abruptly, for impact.”
“Glances,” the poem opens “Two people meet. The sky turns winter” and continues through the various stages of the relationship, without much use of figurative language, only to conclude with an apt set of metaphors, complementing the original figures of speech:
They find they are riding an avalanche
feeling at rest, all danger gone.
The present looks out of their eyes; they stand
calm and still on a speeding stone.
Stafford turns to natural imagery for even his heaviest subjects; it is as characteristic of his poetry as is his sentence rhythm. “Chickens the Weasel Killed” equates the attitudes of modern people with those of the chickens in question, and from his description of the chickens, he makes his analogy.
A passerby being fair about sacrifice,
with no program but walking,
no acrobat of salvation,
I couldn’t help seeing the weasel
fasten on the throat.
Any vision isolates:
those chickens the weasel killed—
I hear them relax years from now,
subsiding while they threaten,
and then appeal to the ground with their wings.
Through his comparison, Stafford’s opinion of dispassionate, rational man is clear. Men without succumb to the predator, just as the passive chickens flocked before the weasel: the plurality of chickens is set against the “isolation” spoken of in line 6: “Any vision isolates.” In this aphorism, the poet delivers his own moral judgment, and becomes the true child of Whitman. More than any other contemporary American poet, Stafford delivers injunctions, prescriptions, prohibitions, and gentle curses.... Conscious of his immediate world in all respects—the rhythms of its language, the objects of its physical world, and the real character of its people—Stafford feels a heavy responsibility to share his views with other human beings. One of the reasons he admires the poetry of Brother Antoninus (William Everson), whose poems he edited in 1967, is that Antoninus also takes seriously that responsibility—to impart not only knowledge, but vision. As Stafford writes in his introduction to The Achievement of Brother Antoninus,
We are accustomed today to accept for the duration of a literary experience all kinds of moral reversals, anti-universes, and ordinarily outrageous assumptions. We ride with the work, accepting the author’s most emphatic statements temporarily, without yielding ourselves in any vital way to his assumed authority. We accept his tone as part of the literary experience, but we know that the writer cannot through personal authority coerce our belief.... The fine arts cannot impose; they have to appeal.
However, a generation ago, or longer, an author was a sage, sometimes almost a prophet, a model of some kind. Brother Antoninus is in that tradition, and his poems take on a prophetic, oracular tone. What he presents, he presents as an insight, a truth, not merely as an exercise of the imagination. In his work his voice is direct; he does not turn aside to flirt with fancies and baffling temporary allegiances; there is no Emperor of Ice Cream in his poetry, no Raven saying “Nevermore” to enchance a temporary feeling chosen for literary exercise. Brother Antoninus sets up to be a thinker and guide, a statesman of letters. His stance is that of responsibility.
If Stafford’s poems—because of these “plain-style” characteristics—do not share the “prophetic, oracular tone” of Brother Antoninus’ work, they do convey the same “stance of responsibility....”
Stafford’s openness to “cadence,” “pace,” “flow,” “feel” has given his poetry its unusual rhythmic patterns, its genuine incremental plain-style that makes Whitman’s catalogues and full phrasing sound artificial by comparison. Thematically, one can only conjecture, this same attitude has made Stafford a man ably equipped as poet, a man who observes his world as naturally as he draws breath; and finds orders of correspondence as meaningful as the first Romantics did. In “Father’s Voice,” his fine poem about his father’s heritage to him, Stafford describes his openness to the world’s experience.
“No need to get home early;
the car can see in the dark.”
He wanted me to be rich
the only way we could,
easy with what we had.
And always that was his gift,
given for me ever since,
easy gift, a wind
that keeps on blowing for flowers
or birds wherever I look.
World, I am your slow guest,
one of the common things
that move in the sun and have
close, reliable friends
in the earth, in the air, in the rock.
The impact of that last stanza, each line measured to give each word in those characteristic implementing phrases its full value, can hardly be attributed entirely to the poet’s choice of syntax. Anyone who explicates poetry knows that. But in Stafford’s case, the fullness of his idiomatic voice seems to parallel the fullness of his own self-knowledge: his “plain-style” applies both to poetic style and life style; and in its re-creation of the beauty that he finds here, now, on this earth, his way of seeing becomes an important path for all of us. But Stafford says it better in his 1970 “Allegiances”:
It is 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.
Far to the north, or indeed in any direction,
strange mountains and creatures have always
lurked—elves, goblins, trolls, and spiders:—we
encounter them in dread and wonder,
But once we have tasted far streams, touched the
found some limit beyond the waterfall,
a season changes, and we come back, changed
but safe, quiet, grateful.
Suppose an insane wind holds all the hills
while strange beliefs whine at the traveler’s ears,
we ordinary beings can cling to the earth and love
where we are, sturdy for common things.
That one poet has found his own allegiances—and a voice to pay tribute so distinctly—gives us each strength to search for our own locations. Like Whitman, Stafford sends us looking for our own sturdy and common, but real, songs.
Source: Linda W. Wagner, “William Stafford’s Plain-Style,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 19-29.
Fauconnier, Gilles, Mental Spaces, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Garber, Frederick, “On Richard Hugo and William Stafford,” in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, January-February, 1980, pp. 16-18.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Low, Denise, ed., Kansas Poems of William Stafford, Woodley Memorial Press, 1990.
Prince, Gerald, A Dictionary of Narratology, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Stafford, William, The Rescued Year, New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
Stafford, William, poetry reading at Elliot Bay Books, Seattle, Washington, August 14, 1991.
Wagner, Linda W., “William Stafford’s Plain-Style,” in Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1975.
Lipsitz, George, “Who’ll Stop the Rain? Youth Culture, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Social Causes,” in The Sixties: From Memory to History, edited by David Farber, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994, pp. 206-34.
The growth of rock and roll music is used as an example to describe the growth and power of the youth movement in general.
Steigerwald, David, The Sixties and the End of Modern America, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
This source gives a very thorough look at the various cultural aspects of the Sixties and weaves them all together into a comprehensive explanation of what occurred.
Taylor, Henry, Compulsory Figures: Essays on Recent American Poets, Baton Rouge: University of Louisiana State Press, 1992.
Taylor devotes a chapter entitled “Millions of Intricate Moves” to Stafford’s writing, giving an excellent overview of the author, his background, and strong points. This is a good place for the reader unfamiliar with Stafford to begin.
"Fifteen." Poetry for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/fifteen
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