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

Upping my Twain

My study and my home, for that matter, are starting to become overrun with books. Actually, this started a long time ago but I prefer to ignore the realization as long as possible. Regardless of sagging shelves, loaded boxes and growing stacks, I continue to collect books. I recently told my wife I would address this addiction immediately. I would attack it with energetic vigor and a dogged determination. I will hold the line!

So with that in mind this past week, I added three more books to my Mark Twain collection.

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I already have the Complete 29 Volume Oxford Collection of Mark Twain’s works, a CD collection of his private letters, and a couple boxes of his books in various paperback editions. You see, when I read I use a pencil to underline memorable passages and make marginalia. I’m a slow reader, taking in every word and every punctuation mark. If I don’t underline passages I’m not likely to find them when I go looking for them. I can’t bring myself to write in most of my hardcover books. That’s irreverent! Well at least not in the one’s I consider my collection stock. This means I collect the hardcover books and in some cases, like my Mark Twain collection, I buy a paperback version so I can write in that book.

If you don’t already, one day I’ll have to write a post on why you should read Mark Twain. But that’s for another day.

So as for the books pictured above:

Well if you weren’t already aware, Mark Twain’s writings, beside being humorous, a work of art and fun to read, mark a transition in the history of American literature. Ernest Hemingway famously commented:

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

That’s high praise coming from a winner of the nobel prize for literature. A part of Hemingway’s renown as a writer comes from his adopting a Twainesque style of writing. Not the humor so much, but the rule that a writer “Employ a simple and straightforward style,” and “Eschew surplusage.” Of course there’s a lot more to Hemingway’s particular art but he was clearly influenced by Twain.

Anyone who likes to read and write is usually attentive to prose style. I pick up books all the time and skim a few passages in order to get some feel for the writer’s prose. For me, this attentiveness to writing tends to spill over into an attentiveness to everyday speech, because good writing, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, is “the shadow of good talk.” This has become a habit. I find listening carefully to good talkers can help improve your writing. I listen for organization, rhythm, cadence, word choice, and structure. All the elements of an individual style or personality. People’s individuality and their particular way of thinking and expressing themselves is truly fascinating.

So naturally with a writer I admire, I’m interested in how they developed as a writer. What influenced and shaped their style. This is why I picked up The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. This history book outlines the beginning of Samuel Clemens’s (Mark Twain’s) career and how he and some other prominent writers of that time helped reinvent American literature.

Then we have the recently released Chasing the Last Laugh  by Richard Zacks. This book is about Twain’s great world wide tour. Mark Twain didn’t have much luck with investments and business ventures. He made a lot of money and he lost a lot of money. He got heavily in debt. He decided this wasn’t the way his story was going to end, he wasn’t leaving his family with massive debts to pay off. So Twain set out on very successful world wide tour. This book focuses on Twain’s tour around the world—chasing the last laugh.

Now, I haven’t read this book yet but I know Twain was able to pay back his debts and substantially rebuild his wealth. Full length biographies typically require a good investment of time, whereas books aimed at capturing a brief period or event in a Life are usually shorter reads and yet very informative. So this book along with, say, Man in White are good, short reads if you’re interested.

Finally, I picked up the 125th edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This edition is a copy of the original first edition with illustrations and notes as Twain originally approved. My goal is to read this one through carefully and write a review—eventually.

The Art of Swifting

Right now I’m reading a superb biography on Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) by Leo Damrosch. Swift is one of the most memorable personalities in the history of literature. This biography is hard to put down. The book is a masterpiece of prose and storytelling itself. Swift was an essayist and satirist with a sharp mind and a burning wit. For me, Swift’s most memorable quotes, the ones that remain in my mind when I think of Swift, are:

“The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.”

“Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.”

“If a man would register all his opinions upon love, politics, religion, learning, etc., beginning from his youth and so go on to old age, what a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions would appear at last!”

“There is nothing in this world constant, but inconstancy.”

“…the most pernicious race of odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

Swift is mostly known for his satirical story called Gulliver’s Travels. If you’re over 40 you may have had to read this story in middle school or high school. George Orwell, himself probably one of the top 5 English language essayists to ever pick up a pen, thought Gulliver’s Travels probably meant more to him than any other book ever written. Orwell said there was rarely a year that went by without him dipping into Swift’s classic. Orwell wrote an excellent essay on Swift well worth reading.

What brought me to writing this post was a rather humorous passage in Damrosch’s biography that highlights Swift the writer and Swift the personality. Swift was not, at least in many of his writings, a politically correct writer. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and he had little patience for literary cant. On Page 209 of Damrosch’s book he writes:

Commenting on a history of the Church, he [Swift] once rewrote an overelaborate passage in order to bring it to life. Here is the original text, describing unworthy clergymen: “They are an insensible and degenerate race, who are thinking of nothing but their present advantages; and so that they may now support a luxurious and brutal course of irregular and voluptuous practices, they are easily hired to betray their religion, to sell their country, and to give up that liberty and those properties which are the present felicities and glories of this nation.” That’s barely readable. Swift’s version gets rid of the big words and abstractions, and leaps from the page: “The bulk of the clergy, and one third of the bishops, are stupid sons of whores, who think of nothing but getting money as soon as they can. If they may but procure enough to supply them in gluttony, drunkenness, and whoring, they are ready to turn traitors to God and their country, and make their fellow subjects slaves.”

We could almost say this bitting, straightforward, no pulling punches writing style, is what we might call Swifting or the Art of Swifting.

Remembering Shakespeare and the Arts

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts. — William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare (photo: Wiki)

Today is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. I was reminded by a New Yorker piece I read over morning coffee. It got me to thinking about my first “encounter” with Shakespeare.

Most of us educated in the Western world, especially in the English speaking nations, probably remember an English class where you had to read and discuss a Shakespearian tragedy, history, or comedy. I suspect the tragic plays, if any at all, are probably more remembered than any of the other plays: works like Julius Caesar, MacBeth, Othello, and King Lear. There’s a greater weight and imprint to the tragic sense of life. It’s always there, just below the surface, working sadly.

I first experienced Shakespeare’s plays in a high school English class. The most cogent memory is of Mr Roper’s class at F.W. Cox High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The course instruction was memorable only in the sense that I was so bored. It was hard to stay awake. I seem to recall Mr Roper calling on me just to make sure I was awake. I was not as good as many of the other guys in class at hiding it. Shakespeare’s idioms and word play required too much thought and had no relevance to my life or my future. Just like those complicated math classes…it was a waste of my time!

Or so my teenage mind thought at the time.

College was a little better. A little more maturity, mixed with the exposure to other interrelated liberal arts courses and, more importantly, excellent teachers, stirred my interest in the subtleties, meaning, and value of the arts. Reading Shakespeare in college was, well, an eye opening experience for me. I don’t recall the instructors name, though I can still see and hear him in my mind. With him Shakespeare came alive and spoke to me. I began to see, and more importantly in art, to feel and appreciate the artistry and creativeness of Shakespeare’s genius.

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Sure, a psychologists, using different words, would tell you these very basic things: your perceptions construct your world. Most of us understand that. But the scientist couldn’t say it with the poetic depth of a Shakespeare! And believe me when I say delivery absolutely influences receptivity.

Art is the mirror of life as the saying goes. The artist is simply holding up that mirror—words, imagines, and provoked emotions—to stir your soul. Because the active soul engages. And that’s what art, ultimately, is about. Art is about engaging your intellect and emotions so you can see and feel the world differently.  

The Siren Song of Nostalgia

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Odysseus and the Sirens, by J. W. Waterhouse

I’ve been reading a beautifully written book by Adam Nicolson called Why Homer Matters. I highly recommend the book. The book is mostly the memoir of Nicholson discovering that “Homerity is Humanity,” that Homer is ultimately a guide to understanding life. Nicolson was inspired to write the book after reading the story of the Sirens in the Odyssey. For Nicholson, the story of the Sirens is the main thread, the central metaphor, that connects the Iliad and the Odyssey. In a very memorable passage from his book, Nicholson describes what the story of the Sirens means:

The Sirens sing the song of the heroic past. . . . They want to draw Odysseus in with tempting stories of what he once was. . . . The prospect of clear-cut heroism summons him, and he struggles to escape his bindings. But his men, like the poem itself, know better, and they tie him tighter to his ship. They won’t be wrecked on the illusions of nostalgia, the longing for that heroized, antique world [of the Iliad], because, as the Odyssey knows, to live well in the world, nostalgia must be resisted; you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for a wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life. Don’t be tempted into the lovely simplicities that the heroic past seems to offer.