‘Ask Me’ is a simple, yet thought-provoking poem about life. The poet William Stafford addresses directly to readers or one of his companions to ask him whatever they wish. He would answer them by listening to them with attention. In this poem, he evokes the image of a frozen river that is the main symbol of the poem, representing life and aging.
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‘Ask Me’ by William Stafford is about a speaker’s preparation to take questions on his life and the changes that occurred throughout the journey.
This modern fourteener begins with an image of a river in winter. When its water turns into ice, the speaker wishes to be asked a few questions about his life, acts, and memories. Many have come and gone. Only a few of them reminded him of his happy past. While others only hurt him. So, the speaker asks his companion (or readers) what change they have brought to his life.
The second stanza of the poem takes readers closer to the answer. Stafford describes how the current is still there even though the river looks frozen from a distance. Like the river, he is still the same, only the changes are nothing but the transient “ice” that melts after the winter is over.
You can read the full poem here.
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
William Stafford’s poem ‘Ask Me’ is separated into two stanzas. The first stanza presents a few questions that the poet frames for himself. He needs someone to ask him those questions. So, he is prepared from the very firsthand to answer those questions which he feels to answer. In the second stanza, he provides the answer to those questions. So, the text is in itself a mirror where the poet finds his own reflection and asks it about himself.
In the first stanza, the speaker describes a river of winter. When its water is frozen, the poet feels a bit pensive and goes on to interrogate about his life. It seems as if he is asking the questions to himself instead of someone else doing that for him.
He wants to know about the mistakes he has made throughout the journey. Secondly, he enquires whether his life is a complete mistake or not. Such an existential crisis occurs within a man’s mind at the verge of death or when he starts to age. Furthermore, he describes how some of his close ones have come into his thoughts and tried to help him out. While other memories have only hurt him. So, he wants to answer whether their love or hate has made any difference to his life or not.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
In the second stanza, Stafford tries to open up his mind and listen to what his companion is going to say. He would listen to him silently and attentively. They can turn at the river and observe it closely. Here, the “silent river” metaphorically represents the poet’s mind. They both are silent.
Though the river is silent from outside, it still flows. The current is always there even though the flow is hidden. Besides, the water keeps coming and flows past the poet. It reaches the shore and ends. The same applies to any living being. Like the water of a river, we all have our time to reach the shore and in the end, we are destined to die.
If the water stops coming, there will not be any river existing before the poet. So, the river is everlasting. In the same manner, the love and hate of others have caused temporary changes to the poet’s life. The river keeps flowing and never halts as it seems to be. So, what the river tries to convey is the answer of Stafford.
‘Ask Me’ is a modern fourteener or sonnet that does not adhere to the conventional form. The fourteen lines of the poem are separated into two seven-line stanzas. There is no regular rhyme or meter. The text is in free-verse written from the first-person point of view. Stafford’s persona is the speaker of the poem. He speaks either with the readers or a mute listener, probably one of his old friends. This feature makes it also an example of a dramatic monologue. Here, the speech of the speaker lets readers know about his mindset and views.
Stafford’s ‘Ask Me’ showcases the use of the following literary devices.
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text. For instance, Stafford internally connects the lines “Some time when the river is ice ask me/ mistakes I have made. Ask me whether …” by using this device.
- Repetition: There is a repetition of the phrase “ask me” in the first stanza. It is used for the sake of emphasis.
- Rhetorical Question: It occurs in the first stanza. Here, the speaker implicitly asks a few questions to readers.
- Metaphor: The frozen “river” is a metaphor of the poet’s life. It is also a symbol of constancy.
- Epigram: The lines “there/ are comings and goings from miles away” contain this device.
In ‘Ask Me,’ Stafford explores the themes of life, love and hate, change, and memories. This symbolic piece speaks on life as a whole. Stafford portrays the frozen “river” of winter as a metaphor of life and constancy. It resembles his mind. The past memories have made him either happy or sad but his life goes on like the current, beneath the ice. This frozen bit of water represents the changes that occur due to the harsh phases of one’s life. It melts away with time and with the vibrance of life. Through the text, Stafford also explores the emotions of love and hate and their impact on his life.
Stafford’s ‘Ask Me’ appears in Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford. This piece was also published in Stafford’s posthumous collection The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems. It was published in 1998. In this poem, Stafford talks about his life. He wrote the poem somewhere around the last few years of his life. He is engrossed with some questions. Through writing this piece, he tries to answer those questions through the metaphor of a frozen river. The text represents the poet’s optimistic view of life. He accepts the changes, whether good or bad, as part of his life and like the river, move on.
Explore more William Stafford poems.
The title of William Stafford’s poem ‘Ask Me’ is an open invitation to readers to ask him the questions that he frames for himself. These questions are about the changes that occurred in his life and whether his life is a complete mistake or not. The answers to those questions are provided in the second stanza.
The river does not say anything at all. It acts as a symbol that implicitly conveys the meaning of life. Stafford describes it as a manifestation of constancy. According to him, the river has all the answers to his questions. As it never halts in its journey in winter or summer, the poet’s life goes on irrespective of the changes.
The speaker of the poem is none other than the poet William Stafford himself. He speaks through his person. It is written from the first-person point of view. Besides, it seems there is a mute listener in the poem. He is nothing other than the poet’s own reflection.
The last line of the poem “What the river says, that is what I say” contains the answer to Stafford’s rhetorical questions. In the first stanza, he asks whether his life is a total mess and others’ reactions have actually changed him. Like the silent river that flows irresistibly irrespective of chilling winter, the poet goes on.
Here is a list of poems that similarly explore the themes present in William Stafford’s poem ‘Ask Me’.
- ‘Constancy’ by Joseph Brodsky — This piece describes the meaning of change over time. Explore more Joseph Brodsky poems.
- ‘Life Goes On’ by Michael C. Blumenthal — This poem explores the slow meandering pace of life. Read more Michael C. Blumenthal poems.
- ‘The River’ by Sara Teasdale — This short and effective poem uses a river as a narrator and describes its journey towards the ocean. Explore more Sara Teasdale poems.
- ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ by Walt Whitman — It’s one of the best-loved poems of Walt Whitman. In this poem, the themes of life, growing up, and existence are explored. Read more Walt Whitman poems.