“Ask Me” by William Stafford

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made.  Ask me whether
what I have done is my life.  Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait.  We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.


I thought of this poem today because it’s been cold as Dante’s Hades lately, and “when the river is ice” has an almost irresistible allure.  But as soon as weather invited it in, reflection embraced and clung to it.  When I look about at the current storm of extravagant poetic styles, it’s often hard to find a still point, a moment of persuasive contemplation.  That’s when it’s time to turn to Stafford, though the currents of solace in his work are always counterpoised with a tone of resignation.  If you want to save this poem in the mysterious sector of your mind, you may find my probing, while hardly exhaustive, a little annoying.  I’m in a ruminative mood.  If you prefer original recipe, just read the poem again and leave me out of it.

The narrator begins by admitting that he’s made mistakes, and they’re not easy to own up to.  That understanding leads to asking if there’s a gap between being and doing, then he admits that the healing and harming actions of others have probably contributed little to the answer to this asking.  Indirectly, I believe he’s refusing to dodge any responsibilities or take any credits.  He reiterates the invitation of the title three times in the stanza, making certain the listener understands that he earnestly wants to be asked.  One imagines this little credo is in the midst of a conversation, and the narrator is attempting to allay some friction.

Even in two seven-line stanzas, the sonnet shadow falls heavily on this poem.  It has a two or three part structure, two if the last line just extends the rest of stanza two, three if it deeply complicates it or subverts it.  Many of the lines are decasyllabic or close to it, and there’s just enough rhyme (especially “say . . . away . . . say” in stanza 2) to suggest a formal feeling.  The six accents in the last line reinforce the feeling of rhetorical finality, though the poem ends on an expansive note.

The narrator is saying — to you, me, any wilderness willing to listen (See Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark.”) — you can ask me about my identity and its relation to others.  And if you do, I won’t dismiss your question, but I recommend that we look and listen and wait until we can fully appreciate both the still silence and the dynamic that “hold[s] the stillness exactly before us.  “Before us” both spatially and temporally.

Then he takes the enigmatic, wisdom-teacher way out: “my answer is that wordless, mysterious nature of the river.”  So we’re left with an analogy which will leave some readers saying “cop out; coy; that’s a dodge” and others consenting to accept and consider the ways that nature’s example argues against our trust in rhetoric.

One of my favorite aspects of the poem is the way the questioner and the interrogated narrator occupy the first stanza as separate, perhaps caught in a tense moment of difference.  But the second stanza begins with an invitation to cooperate, leading to “you and I,” leading to “we” and “us.”  Once the speaker and his questioner — imagined, single or collective — have merged, the narrator makes a straightforward statement which has the structure and rhythm of decisiveness, and it is decisive, just not explicit or literal.  I’m left feeling that the narrator of the poem and the river are quite similar — still and cold on the surface, forbidding, but underneath full of energy and complication.  And the day’s swelter has been diminished by chilly contemplation.

“Ask Me” can be found, among other places, in Stafford’s New and Selected Poems, published by Graywolf in 1999.

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4 Responses to “Ask Me” by William Stafford

  1. Kitana says:

    that was awesome

  2. Heidi T. says:

    Thank you. This is a powerful poem. While I don’t fully agree with some aspects your interpretation, your call out of the journey of the questioner-to-narrator from separate (possibly confrontational) to “we”/”us” was lovely and much appreciated. I had missed that and now this poem is even more enjoyable.

    Overall, Stafford rather beautifully puts for his truth that beneath the momentary/temporal surface of things (or of himself)—which could be misconstrued as all there is when analyzing/self-assessing—lies a flow that holds something akin to that thing’s (or his own) true nature/true self.

    He’s also talking about influences of other natures/selves on him and about accepting and holding to his true self/nature. For example, following right on the heels of the concept of “mistakes I have made,” note how he says, “Ask me whether what I have done is my life”—as if to say, “Was that Me? Was that the product of Me? Or was that bad mistake (or, equally, that good action) the influence of someone else?” He’s not running from responsibility for his actions, whether those actions were wrought by his own nature or the influence of others’ who meant “to help or to hurt.” But he seems to be saying that regardless of how strong their influences of love or hate have been on him, there remains that intrinsic, natural force/flow that is essentially him and will ultimately speak to make up his life and actions. (“What the river says, that is what I say.”)

    Thanks for making me think about this poem more deeply today. I enjoyed your commentary.

  3. Paul Newton says:

    This poem puts me in mind of a bit of zen doggerel:

    You cannot take hold of it,
    But you cannot get rid of it.
    In not being able to get it, you get it.
    When you speak, it is silent;
    When you are silent, it speaks.
    – Cheng-tao Ke, translated by Alan Watts in The Way of Zen

  4. Pingback: how quickly | in silence, humming softly

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