I discovered this poem for the first time at this post Ask Me located on the blog inward/outward
By William Stafford, The Language of Life
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.
I am still trying to comprehend the meaning of this poem, but the imagery and words spoke to me so powerfully that I had to write about it. The most powerful line for me is “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” On the most obvious level, the answer to the question Stafford invites us to ask is “Yes.” Yes, my life is all about what I have done. What other measure for one’s life is there than to look at what one has actually accomplished? Even Jesus in Matthew 25 seems to tell us that the truest measure of our lives lies in what we have accomplished/attempted/done. “I was hungry, and you fed me. Thirsty, and you gave me a drink, etc. . .”
On another level, however, we are more than the sum of our actions – at least I hope we are. Don’t our beliefs, convictions, and internal lives/monologues count for anything? Again, Jesus seems to think so, especially when it comes to our negative thoughts. In the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7, Jesus equates lust with adultery and hate with murder.
And then there is the line “ask me the mistakes I have made.” For me, at least, the answer to any such question would take a while to process and would entail a lengthy response. The same is true for the last line of the first stanza: “ask me what difference their strongest love or hate has made.”
The last stanza is the more difficult of the two for me. Is Stafford saying that we cannot know everything about ourselves and our lives, much like we cannot really know what lies beneath the surface of a river, especially one that is frozen on the surface? Is the frozen river indicative of the fact that we can only examine our lives in discreet artificial increments – and by doing so we step outside the flow of time and thus set up an artificial environment for our ponderings? And what does the river say? The answers to these questions elude me.
Nevertheless, I have been reflecting on this poem for over a week now. I cannot get it out of mind. Now, maybe you won’t be able to either.
One sermon that quotes this poem is “The Call,” by the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, Dean of Washington National Cathedral. At one point Lloyd says:
There’s a line in a William Stafford poem that goes, “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” That’s a haunting question for most of us to have to answer. For some of us those words will sound ridiculous, the kind of empty words you’d expect from a poet. Obviously my life has been my life!
But for others, those can be penetrating words, because they ask the question of whether the life I’m living is the life I was made for, the life I have it in me to lead, the deepest, most creative, best life I could offer.
Two other sermons that utilize this poem are:
“The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything”
“Letting Your Life Speak” by Rev. Barbara Palmer. Click here to download full sermon as PDF file. A sampling of William Stafford’s wonderful poems can be found here. The Academy of American Poets page on Stafford, here, has a brief biographical note about him, as well as links to other sites featuring his poems and other related material. A longer biography of Stafford is located here. Below are links to books by and about William Stafford
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