Ask Me

William Stafford

“William Stafford was born in 1914, the first year of the Great War. As a child, he heard drums in the military parade. At the edge of town, he watched the Klan march. He chopped weeds in the sugar beet field. He worked in an oil refinery. His paper route sustained the family for a time. And when he started writing during World War II, in a camp for conscientious objectors, he wrote about the citizens of Dresden. He was spared the need to hate. Something deeper was at stake.

A hungry reader of philosophy, his lifelong companions were Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Pascal, and Wittgenstein. But so were the thousands who sent him their poems, and received an immediate reply. “Let’s talk recklessly,” he would say. He wrote rituals, notes, gestures, letters, poems - and invited others into those spaces. “I must be willingly fallible,” he wrote, “to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.”

- From Kim Stafford’s Preface to ‘Ask me: 100 essential poems’, William Stafford.

Let’s talk recklessly. I wish I had been one of those young poets who had written in to Stafford. I would have wanted to have talked with him recklessly. To probe unashamedly, ‘the realm where miracles happen’.

One of the popular stories about Victor Frankl and his conception of logotherapy refers to his time with other Jews imprisoned at Auschwitz. Like the other prisoners there, he was the object of terrible acts of deprivation and torture by the Nazis. They manacled his body, but they could not cage his mind, his spirit. In his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ he talks about the ‘last of the human freedoms’, what is in our control - a deep awareness of self that he preserved. They could do what they wanted to him, but they could not take away this freedom. How he responded, how he let himself be affected by this, was something that he could choose. And it is this choice that he exercised, this tapping into another realm that only he had access to, that liberated him. His soul soared, and there are testimonies about this presence that warmed the prisoners with him, even some of the guards, in a dark, dark time.

Stafford’s quiet persistence, and his will to create and collaborate, turned his poetry into a crowbar that unhinged the hard rock of the self, to reveal the silence underneath. I read about his widespread travels with his poems, in diverse countries across the world, his animated readings punctuated with discussions where he patiently engaged with the many questions that the audience had. They spoke to him as they would, to an Oracle, or some modern day equivalent to the village elder. They bared out their hearts and shared their deepest anxieties with him, and his poems became windows into the great mysteries of the world, and our place in it.

I share with you today, his poem ‘Ask Me’, from which the collection that I am reading, draws its name. The collection also houses an image of his first draft of the same poem (December 11, 1974, from the William Stafford archives). This transformation from that initial conception, as it came, to the final poem, is in itself quite an interesting one to perceive.

In the past, I have shared four other poems from this collection of “100 essential poems”, including For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid’ (which I shared yesterday). Here are the other three if you’d like to read more of his work:
Any Morning’, ‘When I Met My Muse’, ‘The Way It Is’.

If you’d like to meet poems that will smile and sigh, and maybe even humour you when you talk to them, then ‘Ask Me’ :)