Friday, January 13, 2012


What is more natural, more appealing, more calming than a river? Yet there is a mysterious quality about rivers. And the two poems presented in this posting are fine examples of how language can be used to clearly communicate the mysterious aspects of a given situation.

The first poem, by William Stafford, uses uncomplicated language, but what exactly does the river tell the speaker? ("What the river says, that is what I say.") And what is there about the moment "when the river is ice" that makes it a propitious time to think about "mistakes I have made" ?

In the second poem, Stanley Plumly uses straightforward language to convey a complicated situation: the difficulty of communicating.

How do these two poems approach the notion of mystery/difficulty in similar ways? in different ways?

Ask Me (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.

        (from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, page 56:  Graywolf Press, St. Paul, MN
© 1998)

       Wrong Side of the River (Stanley Plumly)

I watched you on the wrong side
of the river, waving. You were trying
to tell me something. You used both hands
and sort of ran back and forth,
as if to say look behind you, look out
behind you. I wanted to wave back
But you began shouting and I didn’t
want you to think I understood.
So I did nothing but stand still,
thinking that’s what to do on the wrong side
of the river. After a while, you did too.
We stood like that for a long time. Then
I raised a hand, as if to be called on,
and you raised a hand, as if to the same question.

        (from Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems 1970-2000, page 151:  Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins, New York, NY © 2000)

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