M. K. Sukach on William Stafford

Passing Remark

In scenery I like flat country.
In life I don’t like much to happen.

In personalities I like mild colorless people.
And in colors I prefer gray and brown.

My wife, a vivid girl from the mountains,
says, “Then why did you choose me?”

Mildly I lower my brown eyes—
there are so many things admirable people
do not understand.

We often look to the last line of a poem for that epiphanic, “Ah!” moment. There may be intermittent “Ah” moments, but our anticipation targets that final stanza where the poem has the last word—as it were. We like to be lead not pushed to that moment. William Stafford’s poem, “Passing Remark,” employs this strategy with a twist. I call his poem a “Woody Allen” because of the purposeful lack of verve in the speaker’s voice and the quirky, often cynical surprise you can always expect from an Allen quip about restaurants or film or politics. In this case, Stafford sets us up for the first line in the third stanza, which works like the punch line to a joke. Notice how nicely that third couplet is targeted. The poem seems to turn on that phrase, as axis, “vivid girl from the mountains”. I wonder what lines or words happened first for Stafford and how he determined the poem’s strategy.

If the tenor of the first two stanzas is part of the “set up,” the title is also plotting us toward a fulcrum moment. Passing remarks are not only ephemeral but presumably casual in tone and lacking in depth. Seeming themselves “passing,” the first two stanzas contain the images and tone (“flat country,” “mild colorless people,” “gray and brown”) that make internal ruse possible. Once we reach the third stanza, “My wife, a vivid girl from the mountains,” we understand what at first might have seemed evanescent phrases are actually the most significant. And without the bland, unexcited tone and “flat” language in the first four lines, “a vivid girl from the mountains” cannot work.

The real punch line in the poem is the oblique compliment the speaker pays to his “admirable” wife, who apparently does “not understand” “so many things,” which includes the speaker’s reason for marrying her. In this way, the internal ruse is the mechanism that allows us to learn something more substantial about the speaker and his wife. In other words, Stafford just doesn’t employ his ruse as a cheap trick but, rather, shows us how to strategize in a poem. The “passing” quality of the poem’s language turns into a quietly ruminative moment—one that remains longer than the maneuver that got us there.

What I appreciate in Stafford’s poem is the obvious and honest nature of this “passing remark”. My first reading left me with the impression that the poem was clever—good but would not resonate further. It’s easy to overlook the sentiment because his little joke works so well. But that ruse is on us—Stafford does set us up for it. However, one can see how the poem so subtly, and with amazing economy, allows us into the complexity of the relationship, which is not passing at all but quite remarkable.

M. K. Sukach’s fiction and poetry appears or is forthcoming in a number of venues to include Poetry Northeast, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Hamilton Stone Review, Ontologica, JMWW, Cellpoems, Yemassee, and The Citron Review.