I Remember They Said It Would Be Hard

greg brown and bo ramsey
Greg Brown and Bo Ramsey

After Arguing against the Contention That Art Must Come from Discontent

By William Stafford

Whispering to each handhold, “I’ll be back,”
I go up the cliff in the dark. One place
I loosen a rock and listen a long time
till it hits, faint in the gulf, but the rush
of the torrent almost drowns it out, and the wind —
I almost forgot the wind: it tears at your side
or it waits and then buffets; you sag outward…

I remember they said it would be hard. I scramble
by luck into a little pocket out of
the wind and begin to beat on the stones
with my scratched numb hands, rocking back and forth
in silent laughter there in the dark–
“Made it again!” Oh how I love this climb!
— the whispering to the stones, the drag, the weight
as your muscles crack and ease on, working
right. They are back there, discontent,
waiting to be driven forth. I pound
on the earth, riding the earth past the stars:
“Made it again! Made it again!”


I made my annual pilgrimage to the West Bank of the University of Minnesota last night to see Greg Brown.  I wrote more in depth about a year ago a post about my history with Brown as a musician.   He was a bit more melancholy than usual and little less funny last night, but he made up for it through Bo Ramsey’s mystical guitar accompaniment.  The two of them have been playing together and writing songs together for longer than Iowa has planted corn.   Ramsey’s unique ability to soften and highlight Brown’s song writing and voice is a nearly perfect pairing of two remarkable musicians.

Brown was focused more on looking back than looking forward in both his song selection and story telling between songs.  I think that’s a mistake as we get older.  I think poetry can be a reminder to live in the moment, regardless of when that moment is in the arc of our timeline.  Stafford reminding us we can make it, what whatever it is, climb that obstacle and bask in the accomplishment of being alive.  Mary Oliver’s poem is as relevant a question to the 88 year old having a birthday today as the 17 year old uncertain of where their future will lead; “Tell me what is it you plan to do, with your one wild and precious life?”  That’s right, tell me what you plan to do today on this sunshine filled Saturday May morning, a precious commodity not to be wasted?

That being said, Greg does have a sense of humor about where all this finally leads….


The Summer Day

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

 

 

Ask Me Whether What I Have Done Is My Life

 

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Mississippi River Frozen Solid in January in St. Paul, Minnesota

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.


 

There are certain poems which stand out because of one line.  Not to say the entire poem doesn’t have meaning, but there are lines in poems that are like thunderbolts in my brain, electric in the resonance from the shared understanding with the poet. A line or even a few words, which are a whispered secret between us, a secret I am surprised to see on paper more elegantly than I could ever express.

Ask Me by William Stafford is one of those poems.  It is a poem I read and re-read more than any other single poem because of one line; “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”  I enjoy my life.  I am proud of what I have accomplished, but there is this voice that has arisen in middle age that nags:  “I am more than an amalgam of what I have done. I am more than the vector of days, months, and years of experience, more than my successes and failures.  My inner life is bigger than what I have accomplished and ever will accomplish.”

Ask Me is as close to a sonnet hiding in plain sight that Stafford published in his life time.  It is 14 lines, nearly 10 syllables per line.  I have no idea whether Stafford had any conscious associations to a sonnet structure when he wrote this poem, for its power lays not in its structure but in its open-ended questions and images it creates in my mind.  Stafford allows me to take solace or vitriol, depending on my mood, from the linkages of the frozen rivers of my life that are at once unmoving and flowing ever faster downstream.  Stafford was a pacifist, whose poetry resonates with an acceptance of the human condition and a gentle push to enjoy yourself, even if things are going to hell all around you, with a reminder that this life we live is pretty amazing.