William Edgar Stafford was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, on January 17, 1914, to Ruby Mayher and Earl Ingersoll Stafford. The eldest of three children, Stafford grew up with an appreciation for nature and books.
During the Depression the family moved from town to town as Earl Stafford searched for jobs. William helped to support the family also, by delivering papers, working in the sugar beet fields, raising vegetables, and as an electrician's mate. In 1933 Stafford graduated from high school in Liberal, Kansas, and attended Garden City and El Dorado junior colleges, graduating from the University of Kansas in 1937. In 1939 Stafford enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to begin graduate studies in Economics, but by the next year he had returned to Kansas to earn his master's degree in English.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941 Stafford was drafted before he could obtain his degree. As a registered pacifist, Stafford worked in camps and projects for conscientious objectors in Arkansas, California, and Illinois. He spent 1942 to 1946 in these work camps and was paid $2.50 per month for assigned duties such as fire fighting, soil conservation, and building and maintaining roads and trails. In 1944 while in California Stafford met and married Dorothy Frantz, the daughter of a minister of the Church of the Brethren.
Following the war Stafford taught one year at a high school, spent a year working for relief organization Church World Service, and finished his master's degree at the University of Kansas in 1947. His master's thesis, memoirs of his time spent as a conscientious objector, was published as a book of prose, Down in My Heart (Brethren Publishing House, 1947).
In 1948 Stafford moved to Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark College. Though he traveled and read his work widely, he taught at Lewis and Clark until his retirement in 1980. His first major collection of poems, Traveling Through the Dark, was published when Stafford was forty-eight. It won the National Book Award in 1963. He went on to publish more than sixty-five volumes of poetry and prose. Among his many honors and awards were a Shelley Memorial Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Western States Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry. In 1970, he was the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (a position currently known as the Poet Laureate).
Although his father appears more often in his poetry, Stafford has stated that his mother's presence and behavior influenced his writing. His poetry was strongly influenced by both the people and the plains region of his youth and young adulthood.
Stafford's poems are often deceptively simple. Like Robert Frost's, however, they reveal a distinctive and complex vision upon closer examination. Among his best-known books are The Rescued Year (1966), Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (1977), Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation (1978), and An Oregon Message (1987).
William Stafford died at his home in Lake Oswego, Oregon, on August 28, 1993.