FORM AND FUNCTION

POETRY VS. ADVERTISING

            I quoted William Stafford’s philosophy of writing in Chapter 7.  Here’s one of his finished poems, plus the first draft of this poem with some changes he has hand written on it.  We have his theory of writing, a work in process, and the final result–a good opportunity to see Principle #4 at work.

                        

                           ASK ME

 

                   by 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.

 

 

 (1st draft of same poem)                      

                        ASK ME

                 by 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.

 

 

            What is he saying?  He could be saying, there’s more to our lives than people see on the surface.  Or, life is like a river.  People complain they don’t like poetry because it’s too hard to figure out its meaning, or that it can mean anything you want it to.  I think what they resent is that it isn’t as accessible as prose.  That may be true in some cases.  But, let’s go back to basics: What are the scenes?  Who are the characters? 

  

             Scene 1, Stafford is on the bank in winter, looking out over the frozen river.  Scene 2 seems to be the same place and time, but he is joined by someone.  Who is the “You?”  We know it is someone special, because he cares about this person, and in Scene 1 he has said most people don’t mean anything to him–even those who have loved him strongly.  It could be a wife or a daughter, but the only person we are sure is looking at this river of ice with him is…you, the reader.  My question–“What is he saying?–is  a trick question.  I’m asking what’s the poem’s theme.  Stafford more than anyone rebels at this idea.  Isn’t he telling us not to reduce his life to an obituary or a resume or a theme?  There’s too much to life to do this.  At best he can compare it to something else that seems simple–the frozen river–but in reality is complex.  The river needs no justification, neither do I, neither do you. 

  

            I said that science is a language to describe the observable world.  Poetry describes things we can’t know, by comparing them to those we can observe.  We don’t know what it is to die, but we in some way understand it by comparing it to sleep.  “But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep.”  Or, in Stafford’s poem, old age is the winter of one’s life.  A fitting time to be musing life’s worth. 

 

             Art is different from advertising.  Poetry encourages us to find multiple levels of correlation in its metaphors; the images of advertising want to be unequivocal–a sports car equals sexual prowess; a brand of beer means popularity with peers; a particular watch, the symbol for success.  Poetry wants the audience to think, to perceive, to feel, to expand.  Advertising wants to limit our options, numb our ability to discern,…get us to buy.

  

FIRST DRAFT TO FINAL PIECE

            Notice the changes Stafford has written on the first draft and the difference between these and the finished poem.  Look for things an eight or nine year old would spot.  He changes “the mistakes” to “mistakes I have made.”  “The thoughts” to “my thoughts.”  “Efforts” becomes “hate or love.”  He adds, “I will listen to what you say.”  The last lines state, “If the river says anything, whatever it says is my answer.”  He rewrites this to: “What the river says, that is what I say.”  He seems to be making the words more definite.  When he says “mistakes I have made” and “my thoughts,” “he’s also taking ownership.  Is there anything else that you notice in the way it looks?

  

            The final poem is broken into two stanzas.  Stafford writes early in the morning.  I can picture him looking out his kitchen window at this frozen river just as the day starts to get light.  I’m not a morning person, and my thoughts anytime before 9AM are black.  That’s what I’m picking up on when he says:

   

            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.

            To me these are strong, bitter words.   He’s saying, “Ask me if I give a damn about anything or anybody.”  If I had written this I’d stop a minute, and think do I really mean that.  No, I do care about what someone thinks.  There’s a turning point in the poem.  If the first part is “ask me,”  the second is “I will listen.”  And to mark that, he adds a line; but more important, he separates one part from the other.  A theme is emerging, and Stafford is using form to accentuate the duality that is a part of that theme.  See the process at work?  He is reacting to the river; in that reaction he discovers someone important to himself; and now he’s fashioning the structure of the piece so it is even clearer to himself and to his reader. 

  

            Just as through the writing he comes to take ownership of his thoughts and his mistakes, so he is taking possession of his theme and framing it to best advantage.  That’s what writing, what poetry is all about.  Poetry, even free verse, has a device that prose doesn’t have.  Compare the last words of each line of the first draft to those of the final draft (by the way, three other drafts came in between). A major alteration the poet has made is in the line breaks.  Here is the poem again with comment.

  

                                    Some time when the river is ice ask me

 

 Here I would like to stop as I read the poem because it is the end of the line, but there’s no period so I am forced to go around the corner

  

                                    …Mistakes I have made.

  

Now I have my period, but can’t come to a complete stop because it’s not the end of the line. 

  

                                    …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.

  

The lines pull me along, meandering as if following the turning course of a river.  Until we are at the turning point of the poem, then look what happens. 

  

                                    I will listen to what you say.

 

The line begins a sentence and ends with a period.  He is using the line almost like punctuation.  There’s only one other place where that happens.  The last line.  Listen…

  

                                    I will listen to what you say. 

                                    You and I can turn and look

                                    at the silent river and wait

  

We are on that meandering river again. 

 

  

                                    …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,

  

Boom.

  

                                    that is what I say.

 

 Boom, boom!  Form following function.

 

            Truman Capote claimed to have written Breakfast at Tiffany’s in ten days, except for the last page, which took two months.  More specifically it was the punctuation of the last page that took two months.  He stated that punctuation is the shared rhythm between writer and reader.  He wanted that rhythm to end just right.  In a practical way that’s what Stafford is doing here.

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