Jun 11, 2010

William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark"

Speaking of road trips, sometimes I understand the popularity of William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark" and sometimes not so much. The plot is compelling, the philosophical stalemate centers on a situation that many of us have feared or experienced in some way, and most readers of poetry care more, perhaps, for animals than each other. The plainness of the language also highlights by contrast the drama of the situation. All that and its quasi-sonnet form make it a good poem for classroom discussions.

However, I also hear some forced or otherwise clunky language. Rhyme almost always makes for an additional factor to consider, but isn't some of it forced here? And what about "our group"? Who comprises that collection? Doesn’t the fourth stanza get just a touch too poetic and unnatural in syntax?

“to swerve might make more dead.”
“My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—“
for the sake of rhyme “purred the steady engine” instead of the more natural “the steady engine purred”
“our group”—is that a little forced or pretentious? The two deer and he amount to a group? Or do we add other details like the red of the tail lights in the exhaust?

I like very much the idea of hearing “the wilderness listen.” There’s a larger, yet natural resonance there, which I’d rather not reduce to the word “symbolism,” but maybe that’s what it is.

So I do see much to like in the poem, especially its stopping well short of soap opera. But I wonder if it’s over-admired. And as for the philosophical center, the question of what to do with the cadaver, isn’t it a bit of a false conundrum? Such acts are difficult, yes, but what are the alternatives?

So here's the poem; I'll be interested in other reactions.

Traveling through the Dark by William E. Stafford : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Brenda's Arizona said...

Wow, this poem is a crash of sadness and reality. It is almost acceptable that a doe has been killed along the highway, but then to realize the alive, unborn fawn is never to be born. That was a kick in the gut. A huge kick.

I didn't know whether the story teller was going to born the fawn or leave it to die in the womb. I glanced at the length of the poem and quickly judged that the writer would not deliver the fawn, but write it off as compound damages.

"my only swerving" - does it mean that his brain went from observing to thinking? He swerved from reacting to planning, to thinking for all of us. What to do with this carcass and semi-carcass inside of the doe? He swerved from emotional thought to logical thinking.

OUCH. Like Lady Macbeth, I will be washing this spot from my heart (all day I will be scrubbing). Sometimes I just want to kick you, Banjomyn.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, sorry for the violence. But I think about the poem periodically and get frustrated that I can't explain better why it charms students and stays with me. So I'm hoping visitors will help (me understand myself? Is that why bloggers blog or writers write? I've heard writers say that, more or less--understand themselves and the world, not that any claim to succeed).

As far as your other comments go, you've really been eating your Wheaties lately: "compound damages," "observing to thinking," "emotional thought to logical thinking," and Lady Macbeth!! Not a bad day's work in the desert!

Why not kick Stafford? I'm just the messenger . . . and I like deer and most dogs . . .

Anonymous said...

I was so thrilled to see "comprised" used correctly. Of course, you would use the word correctly, but I've seen nothing but misuse this week.

Your words, and Brenda's, I appreciated more than the poem. Oh gosh, it's a beautiful deer. And damn, Bambi's inside.

Then again, I must admit, sadness for all the tenderness we kick over the cliff for the survival of others and ourselves.

Gary Carden said...

Maybe there is someone else in the car with the narrator. His wife? A child? Yes, I know, if he had company (which he does say) he would have said so. I'm afraid I'm not very good at pointing possible flaws in this poem. It is Stafford's poem, not mine.

Banjo52 said...

AH, thanks for the good words. And yes, I suppose that's part or all of the poem's purpose, acknowledging the sadness of what has to happen.

Comprise is one goofy word, ain't it.

Banjo52 said...

Gary, yes, and he's The Stafford, so who are you and I? (That's misleading--he seemed ever so modest the one time I heard him read).

Still, he's offering the poem to us as a finished product, so I think we get to have reservations as long as we're not excessively or viciously, stupidly negative.

For what it's worth, I began my commentary with a much more critical notion in mind, but as I kept going back to the poem, I kept liking its good stuff more. Like Stafford, it's a modest, plainspoken thing, and I'm more likely to respect that than bombast. Then I hear Yeats, Hopkins and others hollering operatically in the distance.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Gary, it seems we are seeking more clarity when it isn't owed to us, as you stated. Banjo, it is good stuff, isn't it?

AH, I'm curious on the misuse of 'comprised' that you saw!

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