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On "Traveling Through the Dark"

Steve Garrison

The title poem of the volume deals with the difficulty of finding the right path. The poem's speaker stops his car to push a recently killed doe off the mountain road, where the carcass is a driving hazard, into a canyon. Her belly is still warm: the doe is pregnant, and the fawn inside her is still alive. In this moment, as Dennis Lynch suggests, the poet realizes that everything in the scene--the poet, the deer, the fawn, the car, and the reader--is "traveling through the dark." But although the thoughtless killing seems an ill omen, no despair creeps into the poet's voice, only resolution: "I thought hard for us all--my only swerving--, / then pushed her over the edge into the river." Even in the dark, the search must continue. In "The Poets' Annual Indigence Report," Stafford asks other poets, and readers, to commit themselves to finding the right road: "Our shadows ride over the grass, your shadow, ours:--/ Rich men, wise men, be our contemporaries."

From "William Stafford." In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets Since World War II, First Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Donald J. Greiner, University of South Carolina. Gale Research, 1980. Copyright 1980 by the Gale Group.

Richard Hugo

This poem seems a great favorite of Stafford readers; it appears everywhere. I happen not to care for it much, but for irresponsible reasons which I'll state later. Let's say the world is right, I'm wrong, and the poem is a success. If so, one reason is that it transcends the difficulties he had with the earlier Far West poems. The elements of the Pacific Northwest are there: the night-dark limit on vision contrasted to the unlimited views of bright, open Kansas plains (sometimes the Midwest is brighter at night than the Northwest during day), the surprise you can't plan for because you can't see it coming from far off (what road ever curved in Kansas or ran straight in western Oregon?), the dead deer suddenly there, the canyon, the narrow road, and Stafford honestly awkward in the scene: "I stumbled back of the car." His magic is gone.

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

he says in "Passing Remark," and so the situation on the Wilson River road is definitely not his kind. What strategy will handle this? He takes some strength from the car, the indifferently relentless headlights and from the steady purr of the engine, etc., before he finds a way out.

Now for my sour digression, my irrelevant reasons for not liking the poem - this may be my only chance. Simply put, it jars my Northwest soul. I could argue aesthetically that a poem cannot afford time to wait for a decision, only time for the decision to be rendered or better, named. But I can't defend this. Besides, it's probably wrong. Being from the Northwest, however, I have no doubt what the decision should be, and at least I can understand my impatient urge to say: stop thinking hard for us all, Bill and get that damned deer off the road before somebody kills himself.

Why he uses this as the first and title poem of his second book is probably the more important question. I think he realized that he had "used" that foreign external landscape and managed to write a sound poem (I'm sure one he likes much) out of himself. Stafford's world may not be large, but, his poems are big enough. Here, I think he knew he had literally traveled through the dark and now both ends of the Kansas line are home. He carries his world within him for good, and no matter how foreign the external landscape, he will travel through its darks and find his poem. Of course, he had already demonstrated this in other poems before writing this one, but this time he has convinced himself he can do it. The real sacrifice is not the deer but the external world, and the real salvation is not the life of the next motorist but the poem itself. If this was a moment he told himself as poet he would go on writing his poems anywhere, it must have been one of the best moments in a career that has had more good ones than most.

From Kansas Quarterly (1970).

Bob Perelman

["Traveling Through the Dark"] is all persona in the worst sense. It's the persona of the real life self speaking normally. . . .

[T]his is a "voice" poem. William Stafford has "found his voice." It's all realistic, but all it leads up to is the pathetic fallacy of "I could hear the wilderness listen." A typical neo-academic dirge for nature. The poet is firmly in the driver's seat, "I could hear the wilderness," and firmly in control of all the meaning, "I thought hard for us all."

. . . .

[T]he I is in a privileged position, unaffected by the words.

Perelman and Others

Robert Grenier: I don't think it's fair to dump on the emotional self as commodity. What is there of interest that draws people to that poem?

Perelman: The Stafford poem? I don't know. It's a question of how people read and the circuits that have been opened in readers' minds. The way poetry is being taught now there's less sense of possibility and the mass of people who do read poetry, which isn't very big, have read poems like this, and it's a reassuring, soothing sense of self.

Grenier: That you don't often have in your daily life.

Perelman: Yes.

Grenier: And that you can project yourself onto and identify with as a kind of locus of sensibility that you'd like to be possessed of, at least while reading the page, to give the world a center of feeling it might not have in the flux of shifting phenomena. . . .

Silliman: . . . all the language is subservient to this umbrella structure, which only surfaces in the poem at the word I. What makes the poem work is that same sense of agreement you get in bad didactic writing, whether it's talking about the individualized subjective I or the People or Logos. We've seen a lot of umbrella terms used badly in poetry. And Stafford simply represents one form of that, where all the language dissolves as you're reading it. When you hear language being used "poetically," like the car purring, it comes across in a really smarmy way.

Jeanne Lance: I'm not sure whether the Stafford poem works because of the I or not. I didn't feel that. I felt the I was a convention, and not particularly apt. But the clarity and simplicity of the poem are why people like it. It doesn't have much to do with I.

Perelman: It seems to me the climax of the poem is "I thought hard for us all."

Lance:  But that's the line, the whole line. It's not the use of the I.

Perelman: But the focus of the line is on the I thinking, isn't it?

Tom Mandel: He pushes the deer for all of us. It's not bad enough that he does it. We have to do it, too. People like that poem because it makes them feel shitty. [laughter]

From Hills 6-7 (1980).

Dick Barnes

. . .to me the line "I thought hard for us all - my only swerving" has a redeeming tremor of uncertainty and life about it, the self listening, while for Bob Perelman it merely represents the poet "firmly in control of all meaning." And I'd say in this case I am correct and Perelman mistaken, but in a way that opens up a difficult problem. Because while I agree with him that what's both personal and valid doesn't come from a preexisting personality of the poet, I claim that I can listen better than he can to this particular poem precisely because of a familiarity with the poet that does preexist in my own mind. . . .

This brings us to "the persona of the real life self speaking normally," which Bob Perelman says is the worst kind. I'm not sure I agree with him there. "Speaking normally": for normal-sounding speech to work in a poem the kind of art that hides art is needed, which is a rare kind but not the less to be valued for that.

From Field (1983).

Jonathan Holden

In this poem some of the possibilities of voice have been sacrificed for the sake of formal beauty: the prosody is patterned, the lines are in four-stress accentuals and lightly dabbed with touch rhymes. The artifice, like the poem's conscious construction around the word "swerve," is unobtrusive yet constitutes a definite presence in our experience of the poem. The rules of the pattern leave Stafford enough flexibility to sound conversational, yet the poem manages, while sounding conversational, to remind us of poetry, one reason being that the accentual prosody as deployed here by Stafford contains so many buried echoes of traditional prosody. For example, the opening fine consists of exactly ten syllables. Behind the strong-stress rhythm, we hear iambic pentameter. Most poems, in their very opening lines, declare their prosodic intentions in order to set up the reader's expectations so as to play off these expectations later in the poem, for special effects. When we run into other decasyllabic lines later in the poem--lines 7, 10, 14--and hit passages that have iambic phrasing, we begin to hear that the entire poem is playing two different prosodies in counterpoint, yet never obviously enough to seem artificial.

From Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Copyright 1986 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.

George S. Lensing and Ronald Moran

"Traveling through the Dark" is probably Stafford's most popular and frequently anthologized single poem. In its broadest outline it reiterates the theme of confrontation between technology and wilderness, one which leads to the jeopardy of the latter. The poem is a narrative description of the poet's sojourn along a road at night leading to his discovery of a doe, victim of an earlier collision with another automobile. In a different context, Stafford has recalled the origin of the poem in a personal episode: "The poem concerns my finding a dead deer on the highway. This grew out of an actual experience of coming around a bend on the Wilson River Road near Jordan Creek in Oregon, and finding this deer, dead. As I was recounting the story to my kids the next day, I discovered by the expressions on their faces that I was arriving at some area of enhancement in the narrative." The poet's crisis of discovery is rendered even more acute by his sudden recognition of the unborn fawn: "her fawn lay there waiting, alive, still, never to be born." As a result, he is thrust, both literally and symbolically, between the vulnerable world of the wilderness represented by the doe and the predatory world of technocracy represented by his own automobile. The moral dilemma consequently is transferred to him: "I thought hard for us all." In its outward sense, the decision is an obvious and easy one. The dead doe and the unborn fawn must he removed from the path of traffic: "It is usually best to roll them into the canyon: that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead." This he finally elects to do. The poet's removal of the obstacle, however, is attended with irony and, through the images of the poem, a sense of self-incrimination. As he hesitates in making the decision about what to do with the doe, "my only swerving," he becomes aware of his personal relation to the animal and the larger life of which she is a part: "I could hear the wilderness listen."

The poem's imagery alone, without further obtrusive commentary, defines his personal moral stance. The doe is "almost cold," while "her side was warm" with the life of the unborn fawn. The imagery of coldness-warmth is ironically inverted through the description of the automobile in which the poet himself, innocent of the actual killing, has been driving. He sees the victim "By glow of the tail-light." The car "aimed ahead its lowered parking lights." Even the poet stands "in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red." The life of the wilderness is ironically replaced in this manner by the life of the car. The poet's self-indictment emerges through his obvious identity with both worlds. He is able to abdicate neither. Furthermore, both worlds are presented in terms of life that suggest the human. The wilderness "listens," even as the car sinisterly has "aimed ahead its lowered parking lights," during which time the "steady engine" has "purred." Personifications bring home the fact that, while neither phenomenon is itself human, both are influences on human values.

"Traveling through the Dark" recalls the Emotive Imagination through its use of personifications and images. The images, however, are not surreal, and the poem itself remains consistently an objective narration. Stafford structures the poem upon four four-line stanzas and a concluding couplet. Irregular in meter, the poem employs no regular rhyme scheme--only occasional half-rhymes: "road / dead," "canyon / reason," "engine / listen." In its formal aspects, the poem is characterized by its economy of statement. Its easy colloquialism camouflages to a degree this organization . As Charles F. Greiner has pointed out, the use of a single word can be significant. The unborn fawn is described as "alive, still, never to be born." The word "still" sustains meanings on at least three levels: (1) still as yet alive; (2) still as quiet, indeed, so silent he hears "the wilderness listen"; (3) still as "stillborn," an inevitable association with the appearance of both "still" and "born" within the same phrase.

"Traveling through the Dark" defines in trenchant terms the invasion of the wilderness by a new civilization.

From Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976. Copyright 1976 by Louisiana State University Press.

Terry Fairchild

William Stafford's "Traveling Through the Dark" examines the killing of a pregnant doe by a hit-and-run driver, a subject that would no doubt be treated sentimentally by a lesser poet. One of nature's exquisite creatures has been slaughtered and callously left on the road, unburied, unmourned, potentially to cause future accidents. Stafford, thankfully, avoids the maudlin trap of this topic by presenting the poem's events objectively with an almost reporter-like, semi-detached eye. His attitude toward this common tragedy is sadness but also resignation.

The repetition of the title in the opening phrase states the narrator's literal experience but suggests much more. It conveys the conditions of the accident. The road death is fresh, so the driver who had hit the deer was presumably also driving in the dark, and because nothing was done about the accident, for the sake of the deer or the safety of others, the driver's inaction suggests moral darkness. The darkness also suggests the narrator's confusion about what to do with the deer. "Traveling through the dark" also symbolizes the spiritual void of humankind in its insensitivity toward nature. Finally, darkness points to the final destiny of all beings, the darkness of death.

The poem's opening line creates for the reader a false first impression: the surprising appearance of a deer, usually an occasion for happiness. However, the first word of the next line, "dead," immediately reverses this impression, more so by its delay. Following the pause at the end of line one and at the beginning of line two, "dead" receives extra emphasis. Placed where it is in the poem, the word can hardly be pronounced without producing a dull, flat, thud; in this context it is more than surprising, it is appalling, like the experience of a driver negotiating a mountain bend and seeing a dead deer for the first time. Stafford's traveler quickly assesses the scene and understands its moral implications. It is his duty to roll the deer "into the canyon . . . to swerve might make more dead." The word "swerve" here means neglect of duty, but it also suggests the kinetic image of a swerving automobile, the event that killed the deer.

The second stanza examines the dead deer more Closely under the harsh glare of tail-lights: an eerie, infernal scene that links the traveler's vehicle with that of the hit-and-run driver. The deer is called a "heap," no longer a being, a cold and stiff thing that can be dragged off. Then we learn that it is a pregnant doe, a detail that moves our emotions from sympathy to the brink of pathos. However, Stafford's language is precise and controlled; he doesn't want to be inflammatory. Understating the situation, he simply says, "she was large in the belly."

The third stanza offers an unhappy paradox. The traveler feels the doe's underside and finds that it is still warm; it contains a fawn waiting to be born. In death the traveler discovers life, but not normal life that emerges from the womb into the world, for the fawn is "never to be born." This unhappy realization causes the traveler to hesitate. His mind, as pregnant as the dead doe, is filled with muddled emotions: pity, anger, frustration, and confusion about how to act. He may even wonder if the fawn can be saved, but knows all along what he must do. The reader understands from the first stanza. The traveler's hesitation, therefore, may be seen as simply a moment of silence, a secular prayer before performing his inescapable task.

The fourth stanza draws a closer parallel between the traveler's car and the dead deer. The car with its parking lights jutting forward mimics a beast staring into the darkness, and like the heart of a mammal its engine "purred." The traveler stands in its "warm exhaust turning red," no doubt from the glare of the tail-lights but also from heated emotions pumping blood to his face. The red glow, moreover, cannot help but suggest the deer's blood. The traveler senses the wilderness witnessing (and perhaps censuring) the drama of "our group": the dead deer, the fawn, never to be born, the car only mechanically alive, and himself.

In the final couplet the traveler thinks hard for "us all," not just for the group, but for every being in creation, for all who suffer and face death - a natural prayer brought on by the moment. The pause was his "only swerving" he says, nothing more could be done. Finally he pushes the deer into the river, a shock even though the poem has prepared us for it. The reader has known from the beginning that this is what the traveler will do to save more lives, but this knowledge cannot eliminate a feeling of helplessness, nor a sense of waste.

Stafford's poem might have worked the reader into a frenzy of hate for the hit-and-run driver, but "Traveling Through the Dark" is not about hatred. It is about the sadness that accompanies each traveler on the longer journey of life and toward the inevitability of death, so that when we encounter a misfortune on the road, we hesitate before we move on. Stafford's somber scene is a small tragedy, but in his simplicity, in his directness without swerving, he creates a metaphor for life.

from The Explicator 55.3 (Spring 1997)

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