An Analysis of ‘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
William Stafford (1974)

In this blog post, I will be critiquing the poem ‘Ask Me’ by William Stafford. To begin with, I will explore the structure of this poem.


This poem can be divided into two stanzas. Each stanza contains seven lines. This suggests that both aspects of the poem are equally important. The use of enjambment within the poem helps create a dramatic effect as it encourages seriousness and helps build up to the next line with ease. This poetic device also helps set the tone, mood and pace of the poem.

The first stanza is quite active. This can be demonstrated through the use of the words ‘Ask Me’. This phrase is used thrice which suggests that the poet is very certain of what he wants to be asked. The poet specifies the three main topics he wants to be asked about. These are his mistakes, whether what he did was ‘his life’ and the contribution of what others have made through their ‘strongest love and hate’.

The second stanza is passive. This can be demonstrated through the use of verbs like ‘listen’, ‘look’ and ‘wait’. This passiveness is as a result of the certainty in knowing the questions in which he tells the reader to ask in the first stanza.

Poetic Devices

Metaphor: The greatest metaphor in this poem is the river. What exactly does it symbolise?
In a literal sense, we can say the river is a large natural stream of water flowing in a channel to the sea, a lake, or another river. With this literal definition we can deduce an interpretation that the river is a journey. The final destination is the sea. Therefore, we can say the river symbolises our life journey until we reach our final destination which is death. However, the river in the poem is ice. This, therefore, suggests that when life is a different state of matter, we should ask the author about his mistakes, whether what he has done is his life and the differences people’s love and hate has made.

Oxymoron: The poem constantly uses oxymoron. In the first stanza the use of oxymoron helps the reader to understand the two types of people who have influenced the poet’s mind. These are people who ‘help’ or ‘hurt’ and those who brought their strongest ‘love’ or ‘hate’. In the second stanza there is also an equal use of oxymoron. This is displayed in the line ‘turn and look’ and description of the ‘coming and going’ of the silent river.

Repetition: In the first stanza, the word ask is repeated thrice. In a similar manner, the word say is repeated thrice in the second stanza. The development of ask to say illustrates that the answer is just as important as the question.

Message: This poem is about accountability. Why? Because we are accountable for our mistakes, as well as ensuring that what we have done is our life and how we have reacted to those who tried to help or hurt. This is because in the moment ‘that hold the stillness exactly before us’ which suggest that when we are conscious, assessing and meditating on our reflections we know what the answer is.This answer lies in what our river is. Therefore, what [our] rivers says (our conscience) is what we say.



2 responses to “An Analysis of ‘Ask Me’ By William Stafford”

  1. When I first read “Ask Me” by William Stafford about 50 years ago (I think it was in the New Yorker) I was struck by it and it immediately became one of the poems I carry around in my head. For me, the poem recalls Heraclitus’s “One does not step into the same river.” The river embodies change, flux. Stafford invites us to consider the river when it is arrested in ice. Then we might be able to see truths that lie hidden in the confusions and preoccupations of our everyday lives. In this perspective, the passions of friendship and enmity seem to evaporate along with the “mistakes” that torment us. And it makes us ask: What lasts? What truly counts? I love Stafford’s ambiguous, impish answer: “What the river says, that is what I say.” The answer is that there is no answer. Wisdom lies in acceptance of what can’t be understood…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this insight..this is my favorite poem of all time I’ve carried with me for over 20 years.

    Liked by 1 person

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