William Stafford on the Moon and the Earth, and End of the World

Earthshine and Stunted Beech, by Michael McFarland
Earthshine and Stunted Beech, by Michael McFarland

I’ve been meaning to work on this reading for a while now, and it seems appropriate that I happen to be uploading it on one of the many days in our silly history that people were expecting the world to end. Alas, not yet. At the rate we are going, I wonder if mankind will survive itself to see the sort of end of the world “as we know it” that this poem describes.

There are several things I like about this piece. It intrigues me that the opening line seems ambiguous when heard, as if it might be implying “its” awful stillness, as in an awful stillness possessed by the moon. But that’s not what the poem says. There is the apostrophe which makes it a contraction of “it is.” It is awful stillness the moon feels. And the difference was a challenge for me to find the best sounding way to read it aloud.

Stafford’s diction and syntax recalls something of Emily Dickinson’s style, the playful delight, dancing on the edge of ambiguity and implication. It gives one pause, makes one read again, and more slowly. Not everyone can pull this off, but Stafford like Dickinson before him, does it with grace, and makes me delight in the unique flavor of his language.

I’m also intrigued by the use of commas in this poem. They give the reader pause in line two and the slow down of speech seems to me to echo the moon’s largeness, its ponderousness. In the final line, without even an oxford comma, the “old eternal cities and monuments and mountains” are linked together solely by the article “and.” Without the commas, do they seem to rush along, do they seem less big, less eternal than the slow, ponderous moon in the previous lines?

The paintings are all by my amazing friend Michael McFarland. Nobody captures the magic of wilds and the skies of Pennsylvania and the Eastern U.S. like he does. See more of his work, and inquire about exhibits and purchasing at McFarlandArt.com.

The quiet, magical mood music in the background is the beautiful work of my husband-to-be, pianist, Mr. Brian Kelly.

Read along with the text below the video, and enjoy the world failing to end today.

Looking Up at Night

It’s awful stillness the moon feels, how the earth
wants it, that great, still, steady rock
floating serenely around. It knows it belongs
nearer its bright neighbor that shepherds it through
the sky. And the two begin to converge toward
the docking that will shatter history and bring new continents
hissing out of the sea, and erase with tide
the old eternal cities and monuments and mountains.

© 1987 by William Stafford, from An Oregon Message, Harper and Row

14 Comments Add yours

  1. slpmartin says:

    Really enjoyed your reading of the poem.


    1. sonofwalt says:

      Thank you so much!


  2. kristine byrne says:



    1. sonofwalt says:

      Thank you, M’ Lady


  3. angryricky says:

    I think that there is a tendency to speed up with eternal cities, all those unvoiced plosives and short vowels, but the nasal consonants and rounder vowels in monuments and mountains force you to slow down.

    Someday I’ll have access to youtube again, and I’ll be able to watch your videos. Thanks for providing the text, so I know what you’re talking about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sonofwalt says:

      Yes, I think you explained it well, and it makes me glad that I actually did slow down on the monuments, and mountains. I just didn’t know why until now. 🙂 Thank you! Hey, are you over there now?


    2. angryricky says:

      Saudi Arabia, at this moment. Qassim University, between Buraidah and Unaizah. What are you doing awake? I tend to assume that everyone in your time zone is asleep while I’m at work.


    3. sonofwalt says:

      2:30, that’s actually a little before my regular bed time. But we just got home from a birthday/ holiday party. 🙂


    4. sonofwalt says:

      Glad to know you are safe!


    5. angryricky says:

      You haven’t migrated to the new blog yet–consider doing that. It might be fun…


    6. sonofwalt says:

      I’ve been behind the times lately. Just checking it out now. 🙂


  4. What treats: your recorded reading, and your written close reading! It’s wonderful to experience William Stafford’s words being attended to with such reverence and care.

    Also, thanks for featuring Michael McFarland’s painting. I followed the link and was enchanted by his tree paintings!


  5. sonofwalt says:

    Thank you so much, Jennifer. Your appreciation is such an incredible compliment to me. I know we share a kinship in our love of William Stafford. And I am delighted that you enjoyed seeing more of Michael’s work. He lives a couple of hours from here and we don’t see each other nearly enough. He has a gift and skills that to me border on necromancy! Plus he’s a expert outdoors-man. He and I need to get together again and Kayak or hike soon, or better yet, both! His paintings make me want to write. And he has blessed me no end by telling me that my poems make him want to paint. I’ll have to post more on Michael soon.


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