Ask Me by William Stafford

frozen-river-at-sunset

In a book I recently bought, I came across this fascinating poem by William Stafford.

Ask Me

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.

Like many readers, I suspect, I like the poem even if I’m not sure exactly what it means. Stafford’s meaning is enigmatic, yet mysteriously attractive. There is something deeply alluring about poetry that takes us to the edge of our understanding and leaves us there searching the depths of our soul.

In 1977 Stafford was asked if he could paraphrase his poem to provide greater insight into it’s meaning.

“When it’s quiet and cold and we have some chance to interchange without hurry, confront me if you like with a challenge about whether to me my life is actually the sequence of events or exploits others would see. Well, those others tag along in my living, and some of them in fact have played significant roles in the narrative run of my world; they have intended either helping or hurting (but by implication in the way I am saying this you will know that neither effort is conclusive). So – ask me how important their good or bad intentions have been (both intentions get a drastic leveling judgment from this cool stating of it all.) You, too, will be entering that realm of maybe-help-maybe-hurt, by entering that far into my life by asking this serious question – so: I will stay still and consider. Out there will be the world confronting us both; we will both know we are surrounded by mystery, tremendous things that do not reveal themselves to us. That river, that world – and our lives – all share the depth and stillness of much more significance than our talk, or intentions [bolding added]. There is a steadiness and somehow a solace in knowing that what is around us so greatly surpasses our human concerns.” [1977] — William Stafford

2 thoughts on “Ask Me by William Stafford

  1. Stafford was a Quaker, so he knew about sitting in silence. This poem often reminds me of Lao-tze’s emphasis on stillness in the Tao De Ching. There’s so much room to discover a meaning in this poem, meaning taken from a river that does not speak in a way we’re used to hearing.

    Liked by 1 person

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