A Country Epitaph
by William Stafford
I am the man who plunged
through a river to save his dog;
who failed my parents, though;
who forgot my grief, and sang.
Outside your light I stand.
I appeal through careless words,
I appeal by this casual stone:
Was there more I could have done?
I appeal to human beings:
One day at a time I lived;
I saw more than I told;
I never knew if I claimed
too little or too much. I breathed.
There was more I could have done.
“A Country Epitaph” reminds me of another epitaph, the one in Arizona’s Boothill Graveyard we all learned in childhood:
Here lies Lester Moore.
Four slugs from a .44
No Les. No more.
In a similar vein, the speaker in Stafford’s poem says, This is my life, no less, no more. He’s trying to give an honest accounting of his earthly days, the good, the bad, the indifferent. No false modesty, no excessive remorse, no polishing of a turd.
The facts of his life lead to this question: Was there more I could have done? Yes, of course. The answer is always yes, I dare say, for every human being who has walked the face of the earth.
Although the speaker poses his question to the reader, he answers it himself. There was more I could have done. He feels regret but wears it lightly. That’s a feat, in life as it is on the page.
The usual epitaph, etched in stone, is a formal composition, each word carefully considered. This one feels informal, extemporaneous. The speaker says as much to those standing over his grave—
I appeal through careless words
—but the words in the poem are more loaded than careless. Stafford’s sly construction allows more than one meaning to his pronouncements, meanings which are as contradictory as the measure of his life.
- I appeal through careless words…..Appeal does double work here, first in the sense of making an appeal to the reader, the way a plaintiff does to a judge, but also, I want to appeal to you, please like me!
- forgot my grief, and sang…..Was he resilient in being able to move on after a loss? Or heartless, forgetting it too soon?
- I saw more than I told….This line is so opaque, I can’t see through it. In terms of gossip, seeing more than you tell is good. If we’re talking about a man’s emotional availability, not so good. Multiple meanings exist in other fields, in writing, for example. It’s slippery.
- One day at a time, I lived has echoes of the old Alcoholics Anonymous adage, which in turn calls up images of dark times. Even if the A.A. reference is unintentional, the question of living a day at a time can be positive or negative. Living fully in the present is one of the primary virtues in our age of anxiety, but it can also be shortsighted—remember Aesop’s tale of the ant and grasshopper.
Stafford works both sides of the fence with the form of the poem as well as with the words. In spite of his protest that it’s a casual stone, “A Country Epitaph” is expertly assembled. It reads like everyday speech, haphazard and casual—a difficult thing to do. Formal elements give a stealthy pleasure: the almost eye rhymes (dog/though, plunged/sang); an actual eye rhyme (stone/done); the accumulating consonance of the last quatrain (lived/told/claimed/breathed), the final D suggesting death and leading to the last word, done.
I left the poem outside a Hawaiian cemetery on a surrounding wall. Hawaiian cemeteries are colorful places. Most graves, even the very old ones, have some decoration—leis, a vase of bird of paradise, orchids, anthurium, grocery store flowers. Stroll through the randomly arranged tombstones and you’ll find photographs, stuffed animals, handwritten notes, even favorite foods of the deceased, each offering a testament to the reverence and closeness Hawaiians feel towards the dead. Some people pull up lawn chairs and have a picnic. This particular cemetery has a giant Buddha companionably sharing space with an open-armed Jesus across the field. There’s a Mary statue as well.
William Stafford (1914-1993) was born in Kansas, the oldest of three. He earned his BA from University of Kansas. As a conscientious objector during WWII, he performed alternative service on the home front, working in sugar beet fields and oil refineries, and building roads and fighting fires. At one of these work camps he met his future wife, Dorothy Franz, whom he married in 1944 and with whom he had four children.
Stafford got his PhD from University of Iowa in 1954 and taught for most of his career at Lewis and Clark in Oregon.
His publishing history inspires a late bloomer like me. He was 46 when his first book of poetry saw print and went on to publish over fifty-seven volumes of poetry, and to earn, among many awards, Guggenheim and NEA fellowships.
Stafford’s oldest son Bret committed suicide in 1988 age 40. Stafford wrote about his son’s death but could never talk about with his family. Still, the Staffords seemed to have been close. To get a sense of his home life, link to an interview here with his wife Dorothy and two of his children. I love the anecdote his wife tells about their later years:
He would often say, “Do you hurt anywhere, Dorothy?” I’d say, “No.” And he’d say, “Well then let’s celebrate.”
He had a lifelong habit of rising early every morning to write, reclining on a couch. On the day of his death, at age 79, he wrote a poem “Are You Mr. William Stafford?” which includes these lines:
“You don’t have to
prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready
for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand
out in the sun again. It was all easy.