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"Fifteen" -William Stafford
Original poem by William Stafford below
Fifteen years of age, and who are you? Millions of moons and sunsets and mornings, and who are you? Fifteen years of age and finally it’s time to decide where to begin. You taste temptations as always, yet notice them as you had not before. Be it the allure of a week night spent partying, chasing dawn; or of the sweet open highway- rid of cars and dusted by an evening breeze. William Stafford wrote a poem called “fifteen.” He tells of a boy, fifteen, who finds a fallen motorcycle and is touched briefly by temptation and indecision before he shows himself turning his person to the future by returning to find the owner bloodied in the meadow. In each of the four, five lined stanzas he takes on an emotion, mapping out the footsteps of maturity as a boy, fifteen, becomes a “good man.” He writes the stanzas as each their own being, he makes each one a flowing, smooth sentence that makes the whole stanza a connected idea, but then he separates the stanzas from each other with a short, repetitive sentence. A capping sentence, “I was fifteen.”
In the first stanza William Stafford tackles realization. He describes a motorcycle below a bridge. The cycle is abandoned, “engine running/ as it lay on its side, ticking over/ slowly in the high grass.” To begin his poem Stafford sets a location, “South of the Bridge on Seventeenth.” If one were to assume that we, as people, traveled- metaphorically- in any cardinal direction I would think it to be north. “Up” for all extents and purposes. Stafford’s character is south, not necessarily heading south, but he is south in relation to the bridge. Changes are like bridges, connections between one span of life and the next. Points where the pathway below is much less stable, where there aren’t miles of solid ground below. Changes are things that you have to get over. And assuming that Stafford’s fifteen-year-old is, like us all, heading north, then he’s in for a change/bridge in the future. The motorcycle, though, was found “back of the willows one summer/day.” Willows are lovely, flowing trees, their branches drip down and curtain their trunks; veiling whatever may lie at their toes from all on the other side of their leafy barrier. Stafford’s character finds the motorcycle beyond the barriers of the willows and so you can imagine him pulling aside the waterfall of green and revealing the majestic machine. In fact, everything about the scene cries of a hidden truth discovered. The high grass, tall as if to hide the treasures that rest within it, and the willows, and even the picture of calm, warm serenity that comes to mind with the mention of trees in the summer. But the boy finds the cycle regardless.
Second stanza reverberates temptation and allure. The cycle becomes his forbidden fruit, it has a “pulsing gleam…shiny flanks…demure headlights fringed where it lay;” it is seductive. First with its beauty; it’s pulsing and shiny. It’s elegant and bright like an apple (forbidden fruit). Then it’s intriguing, a friend; he “led it gently/ to the road and stood with that/ companion, ready and friendly.” It draws him in. And for the first part he’s taken with it. He “admired” it. He “stood” with it. He was young and he saw the beauty as something he wanted. He was fifteen after all. These moments are him being a child; this is him before the “good man” from later in the poem. You can tell he is taken with it from the way he “gently” leads it to the road, he is taking care of it. You are not gentle with things that you think are worthless or that you dislike. One does not describe these things, either, as having a “pulsing gleam.”
Freedom and perhaps, bliss are approached in stanza three. The character is imagining himself on the open road. He’s picturing taking the motorcycle, to put it blandly, and riding away on it. It draws to speculation if he, being fifteen, can even legally drive one, let alone that one since surely it would be considered stealing. Assuming that he’s not, there appears the forbidden fruit again. It’s not legal, not okay, yet he wants it- temptation. Though, as for freedom and excitement, he clearly states that there is a “forward feeling, a tremble.” I take this to be excitement growing inside him. He is confident. He is happy- positive at least because he is “patting the handle,” and receiving a “confident opinion.” He is indulging, a word used to express an allowance to something enjoyable. Something sweet. “We could fin the end of a road, meet/ the sky on out Seventeenth.” He speaks of a road and the sky. Roads are made of asphalt, they are hard, stiff. They go where they were paved to go when they were built, they are solid and tough. The sky, contrarily, is an expanse. It’s made up of gases, air and vapor, all things constantly moving as the road cannot. In comparison to the strictness of a street the sky is freedom. It is loose and unmapped. It is escape, for some, from conformity. He speaks of the “the end of a road” as he imagines himself ride this bike away from the hardness of the asphalt street into the freedom of the sky. Into the air. To bring it all together, he imagines taking the bike, finding the end of the road and finding freedom. He imagines the thrill and the excitement of this.
In the fourth stanza Stafford’s poem takes a twist, a new character is introduced, the owner of the motorcycle. The grass which is mentioned earlier seems to be hiding more than just the cycle, but also its rider. This also shows a shift in the nature of the boy, a decision being made. He thinks- and “thinking…found the owner.” The boy blatantly pushes aside his temptation towards freedom and excitement, over comes the pull of a childish whim and thinks. He chooses. He does not choose to ride away, though, rather to be mature and responsible. To think of more than just himself and locate whomever the bike had belonged. The owner, thrown from the bike in the crash. The rider is “just coming to,” or else awakening from unconsciousness he must have received from his tumble. He had “flipped/ over the rail. He had blood on his hand, was pale-” This man is not in good shape. He just crashed his motorcycle and had blood on his hands. On the outside he is injured and broken; needs help getting to his bike. Physically, he is weak while it seems that the main character, being fifteen, is not. He is strong- which is implied from the fact that they are young, full of life as fifteen year olds are. But the rider, once at his bike, becomes strong once again, he “roared away.” He is not magically healed for all we know, he is still bleeding and roughened from the crash, but he has the inner strength of a confident adult and he still gets on his bike and rides away “roared” like a majestic animal, like a lion. Strong. Before leaving the man calls the main character “a good man”. To recap, the main character begins as a fifteen year old with a change- a bridge- in his future; he is beginning to realize this. Then he becomes, in the fourth stanza, “a good man.” Most importantly, a man.
In addition to the emotions portrayed in the fourth stanza there is also a curious usage of language mechanics where he rhymes “rail” and “pale.” The significance of these two words alone is minimal, but the soft, embedded rhyme draws attention to the entire line. “Flipped/ over the rail. He had blood on his hand, was pale-” It draws attention back to the idea of a motorcycle and the act of riding it. Back to the crash, the bases for the poem. The dangers of the motorcycle, which throughout the poem becomes his temptation. The man is riding his cycle as the boy wants to do himself when he flips over a rail. A rail on the side of the road, a barrier of sorts, protecting the common stiffness and concrete of the street from the unknown of the high grass. The man flips over this barrier, he gets lost in the tall grass, and perhaps this is expressed by way of a warning. Adulthood, in all its glory is not all simple and lovely. There is the danger of the temptation. There is the danger of the road.
The last line, the resolution line, is simply, “I stood there, fifteen.” A reminder that despite being called “a good man” he still has a bridge in his future; he’s still fifteen. He watches the man roar off, broken in body- a beast in heart, but he is left behind. He is young, fifteen. Throughout the entire poem this remains true, through all the emotions and visions and temptations it’s the same. And consistent up to the fourth paragraph William Stafford indicates this with a short and obvious: “I was fifteen.”
The boy, as he finds the cycle and then after moments of indecision, returns it, begins his own road to adulthood. He goes from pondering the temptations of the machine to giving it back to its owner and watching him ride away. I know that at fifteen I will be facing adulthood myself. I will fight the temptations and imagine the excitement; I will pause where before, my younger self would have blundered on. I will think and, hopefully, return to the responsible. When do we choose, finally, the right before the easy, the pleasing? I guess it’s when we grow up, or begin to want to, begin to try.
South of the Bridge on Seventeenth
I found back of the willows one summer
day a motorcycle with engine running
as it lay on its side, ticking over
slowly in the high grass. I was fifteen.
I admired all that pulsing gleam, the
shiny flanks, the demure headlights
fringed where it lay; I led it gently
to the road and stood with that
companion, ready and friendly. I was fifteen.
We could find the end of a road, meet
the sky on out Seventeenth. I thought about
hills, and patting the handle got back a
confident opinion. On the bridge we indulged
a forward feeling, a tremble. I was fifteen.
Thinking, back farther in the grass I found
the owner, just coming to, where he had flipped
over the rail. He had blood on his hand, was pale—
I helped him walk to his machine. He ran his hand
over it, called me a good man, roared away.
I stood there, fifteen.