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.