February 2024

David Alpaugh

 “The Little Girl by the Fence at School”

—William Stafford—



        Grass that was moving found all shades of brown,

        Moved them along, flowed autumn away,

        Galloping southward where summer had gone.


        And that was the morning someone’s heart stopped,

        And all became still. A girl said, “Forever?”

        And the grass. “Yes. Forever.” While the sky—


        The sky — the sky — the sky.


I am a fan of the very short poem which I define here as eight lines or less. I write them often, and when I teach writing to beginning poets, I encourage them to master the art of the short poem before tackling longer ones.


The great virtue of the very short poem is memorability. One must read multi-page poems like Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” or Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” or William Carlos William’s “Asphodel that Greeny Flower” many times and work for hours to commit each to memory. But read the following short poems by Frost, Pound, and Williams just once and they will most likely become unforgettable:

      The Secret Sits


      We dance around in a ring and suppose,

      But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.


      In a Station of the Metro


      The apparition of these faces in the crowd

      Petals on a wet, black bough.


      The Red Wheelbarrow


      So much depends



      a red wheel



      glazed with rain



      beside the white


Robert Frost said his goal was to “to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of.” If these intriguing short poems are favorites with many and widely discussed by ordinary readers and professional critics alike it is largely because they have lodged themselves firmly in a multitude of imaginations.


William Stafford’s “The Little Girl by the Fence at School” demonstrates how emotionally and philosophically rich and powerful just eight lines of poetry can be. The narrative in this poem is implicit, so I’ll begin by attempting to bring it forward via the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of storytelling.


Stafford’s title does not merely serve as a label. It acts as the poem’s essential first line as well. Since it establishes its Who as a “little girl” and its Where as “by the Fence at School” the rest of the poem would not make sense without it.


Why the girl is at the fence and What occurs there, however, is not made clear until the middle of the second stanza. The first stanza is devoted to vividly establishing the poem’s When:


      Grass that was moving found all shades of brown,
      Moved them along, flowed autumn away,
      Galloping southward where summer had gone.


It is a windy day in late autumn. The grass is covered with dead leaves. The wind blowing through the grass is carrying the leaves away. The language here is not at all like the prosaic title. Its purpose is to make us feel the emotional effect that the weather and environment convey. Stafford accomplishes this by personifying the grass and animalizing the autumn season.


Description: A horse running in a field  Description automatically generated


The windblown grass is personified as a cowboy driving the dead leaves along the ground, as if they were horses “galloping southward” towards “where summer had gone.” Walking through the blowing grass and whirling dead leaves to reach the schoolyard fence the little girl would have experienced the relentless but beautiful flow and vigor of autumn.


Now we come to WHY the girl is at the fence. Stanza one was all about motion. The first line and a half of stanza two is about cessation and like the title line is quite prosaic:


        And that was the morning someone’s heart stopped,
        And all became still.


Someone related to the girl has died and someone has come to the school to tell her and perhaps bring her home to her family.


We might also ask HOW the girl came to the fence. Possibly her teacher told her that her mother or father or other relative was waiting for her there; or maybe she was playing in the schoolyard at recess and ran to join a relative who was calling to get her attention.


Notice that, again and again, Stafford has declined to give us such details. The word “leaves,” for example, is never stated but is implied in the grass finding and moving away “all shades of brown” (leaves acting as symbols of the fall season).


All we know about the girl is that she is “little” which suggests that she will be confronting the concept of death for the first time. All we know about the deceased is that “someone’s heart stopped” and that he or she was somehow related to the girl. We don’t need to know if it was her mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandparent, brother, or sister. Everything here is moving towards this poem’s essential WHAT— its focus on the child’s attempt to come to grips with the fact that people die, disappear, cross to the other side of an unbridgeable fence; possibly arrive, in Hamlet’s words, at “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.”


Looking down at the grass, the child wonders if death means that she will no longer see her loved one again. She poses that question, not to the grass or the person who has come to fetch her, but to herself as she asks: “Forever?”


The feeling she gets from the grass offers no comfort: “Yes. Forever.”


But the line doesn’t end there. It continues with an implicit answer, reiterated three times by Stafford’s concluding one-line stanza:


Description: A green field with a blue sky and clouds  Description automatically generated


As the girl looks up, the sky provides her and readers with a very different feeling from the finality of being buried under grass, of being gone “forever.” The sky’s never-ending expansiveness suggests a different sort of “forever,” where the metaphorical horses ever gallop towards “summer”; where nature’s cycle is never one of cessation, but of eternal movement towards replenishment.


It’s all but impossible to imagine that changing a word or syllable of Stafford’s poem (or adding or deleting anything) would improve it. Writing short poems is an excellent way to attain what Gerald Manly Hopkins called “The Habit of Perfection,” a habit that will serve poets well when writing longer works. 


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David Alpaugh ’s newest collection of poetry is Seeing the There There  (Word Galaxy Press, 2023). Alpaugh’s visual poems have been appearing monthly in Scene4 since February 2019. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has been a finalist for Poet Laureate of California. For more of his poetry, plays, and articles , check the Archives.

©2024 David Alpaugh
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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