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'Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems' invites a new generation of readers to discover William Stafford

Son Kim speaks for his father William Stafford, shaping a powerful new collection from the thoughtful poet's work.

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Ask Me,
by William Stafford,
Graywolf Press,
128 pp.

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William Stafford was one of America’s most gifted and best-loved poets. His writing – part prayer, part praise, and part protest – resonated deeply with many readers who found in him a kindred spirit and an indispensable guide.

Now, with the publication of Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, in honor of Stafford’s centennial, a new generation of readers has the opportunity to discover his writing.

The exquisite journey is composed of 100 poems chosen by Kim Stafford, the poet’s son and literary executor, who explains in the brief preface that the poems invite all of us to write “our own proposal for peace ... our own consolation, manifesto, blessing.” The work also invites readers to look deeply at the world around us and “be ready."

Be ready for what? The answer unfolds slowly as Stafford’s poems – chosen from 22,000 he penned – create a vivid landscape that traverses the human heart and decades of pivotal memories. Those memories include childhood scenes, reflections on historical events and injustice, and stunning meditations on the natural world. Every poem is grounded in specific details and opens to larger levels of meaning.

A recurring theme throughout the collection is the importance of listening. These lines from the title poem, a longtime fan favorite, beautifully articulate the importance of hearing and understanding what the world and other people convey:

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.

“Ask Me” is a must-have collection, especially for longtime admirers who may remember seeing William Stafford’s work in the Monitor’s pages. “My father was proud to be published in The Christian Science Monitor,” says Kim, a consummate poet and writer who teaches at Lewis & Clark College, just as his father did.
The centennial has helped Kim introduce new audiences to his father’s writing and to develop new insights about its enduring value. “In poem after poem, I find my father starting with ordinary experience and growing toward something deeper, something more mysterious, something precious about our life, ‘a remote, important region in all who talk,’ ” he says. “When I give a presentation about my father’s work, I invite listening for the ladder of poetry that climbs from some episode of daily experience down into the dark of our mysteries, or up into the realm of bright human epiphany.”

Readers will notice that “ladder” in poems such as “Starting with Little Things,” “Father and Son,” and “Smoke,” in which a field, a kite string, or a wisp hints at a larger, grander realm. Other subjects – relationships or taking a stand – also contain a ladder, steadied by Stafford’s sure hand.

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“My father once wrote, ‘Let me be a plain, unmarked envelope passing through the world,’ ” Kim explains. “He was not interested in being the rebellious artist, the wunderkind of poetry. He thought of himself as ‘the chorus’ of the community, listening for and writing down what ‘could be true’ for all of us....”

“Ask Me” brims with substance and gorgeous writing. The poems flow so seamlessly, with such a singular voice, that Stafford seems to be addressing readers directly about a number of cardinal topics. “If we look at the full range of my father’s poems, we see the broad spectrum of weather systems in the human spirit, from light and festive to dark and strange,” says Kim.

In this collection, Stafford moves deftly from one realm of the spirit to another and helps readers experience exhilaration, even when the subject is facing conflict or seeing good in enemies. That ability distinguished the poet – a conscientious objector during World War II – as did his enduring faith that listening, interchange, and poems could lead people and nations from impasse to understanding.

“I hope my father’s poems, and his legacy as a friend to many, may continue to invite citizens into this realm,” reflects Kim. “As he said, ‘I would trade everything I have ever written for the next thing.’ Our job is to ‘find what the world is trying to be’ by composing that next thing, and the next, and the next....”

Elizabeth Lund reviews poetry for the Monitor and The Washington Post


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