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.

This poem appears in Bill Moyers’ book, “The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets” (Doubleday: $38.95.; 450 pp.), a collection of interviews with 34 poets and the companion guide to the PBS series. The chapter on William Stafford, who died in 1993, includes these remarks made in October, 1988:

“Writing is peculiarly susceptible to this wonderful resource, language. I didn’t invent it, I don’t control it. It just rolls on. It comes from everybody. It’s not something I learned from other writers, by any means. It’s not something I learned from critics, by any means. It is a great river of possibilities swirling around us all the time. People talk to each other and come upon--I guess I do it like a gull--these great swoops of realization and vistas that veer off toward other formulations in language. And even the syllables have meaning!


“In writing I don’t know what my intention is. This may sound strange, but I want to be on guard against trying to write good poems. Most writers say, ‘Oh, excellence! There’s no use doing it if you don’t do excellent things.’ But I don’t feel that way at all. I feel that writing is an activity that brings all sorts of rewards, not just good poems. I’d give up everything I’d written for a new one, for a new writing experience. It feels so good to go that trancelike way through a succession of realizations in language toward--what? It’s an adventure. It’s exploration, rather than crafting a predetermined object. At least, that’s the way I feel.”