His early work was a reaction to the vast industrialised and polluted landscape in which he found himself, but a move to the Pacific Northwest in 1954 to teach at the University of Washington at the suggestion of his friend and mentor Theodore Roethke, was to have a profound effect on his work: "I came from a place where nature was ruined, and here the natural world was still in a pristine state." At the age of 35, he'd discovered Nature for the first time, and he recognised a kinship in Thoreau's notebooks: "his creek waiting, his immersion in ponds, his joining mating toads, his following groundhogs, his bringing home a huge mushroom almost as big as he was . . . the absolute joy..."
Wagoner's fifth collection Staying Alive (1966) signalled to critics the point at which he found his own voice as a poet. Robert Cording notes that with this book, he expresses "an acceptance of our fragmented selves, which through love we are always trying to patch together; an acceptance of our own darkness; and an acceptance of the world around us with which we must reacquaint ourselves."
In a prolific career, David Wagoner has written twenty-three books of poetry, ten novels and was editor of Poetry Northwest for thirty-six years. He is Professor emeritus at the University of Washington and was selected to serve as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1978, among many other honours. In 1991 he was awarded the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for outstanding lifetime achievement. His most recent work though, is widely regarded as his best – when Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems, was released in 1999, Rachelle Ratner in Library Journal noted "since many of the best are in the 'New Poems' section, it might make sense to wait for his next volume."
One of the most noticeable features of many of Wagoner's poems is the narrative voice, which was described in an essay by Joanna Durczak as 'the Voice of Instruction'. This voice is, she says, "among the most characteristic voices of American Reality, one that endlessly addresses the American ear from TV screens, advice columns, manuals, self-help books..." Here is some advice from Wagoner’s 'The Principles of Concealment': "If you’re caught in the open/ In an exposed position, alone,/....you should settle quickly /All your differences with whatever lies/ Around you..". Indeed, guidance on surviving in the wilderness is one of the recurring themes of his work. You can listen to this poem on this Archive page along with 'Their Bodies' - an extremely human and tender poem offering advice 'To the students of anatomy at Indiana University'. Wagoner’s spoken voice is rich and calming and is the perfect medium for these finely balanced poems.