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Traveling Through the Dark

By William Stafford

Original Publisher: Harper & Row
Current Publisher: Weatherlight Press

Eric Smith writes:

Traveling Through the Dark, winner of the 1963 National Book Award, was a breakthrough book for William Stafford, and set the stage for one of the most productive careers in American poetry. For all his prodigious output, it is difficult to imagine a poem looming larger over an entire career than the title poem of this collection. Its speaker, “by glow of the tail-light,” considers what to do with a dead doe heavy with fawn. In the end, for the sake of other drivers on that narrow road:

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
Then pushed her over the edge into the river.

A startling ending, perfectly measured in its dramatic intensity, and loaded with a multi-faceted psychological crisis (the images in the last line alone a feast of Freudian birth anxiety). But the penultimate line’s heavy pause—“my only swerving—” sets the metaphorical tone for this book. Often, Stafford’s poems come to some edge: of cliff sides, maps, even national borders. Too, his poems arrive at a similar precipice between the speaker’s present and a past he tugs out of that darkness, one line at a time. This past haunts telephone wires in “Long Distance,” the faces peering out with “that look / the early camera gave” in “The Museum at Tillamook,” and most powerfully in the sonnet “In Medias Res” (we shouldn’t forget that Stafford is a formal poet, and this poem one of a handful of greats in a book that deftly handles its received forms). In this sonnet, the speaker stumbles along a downtown street, his father before him obscured by shadow, and his son behind, while around them “our town burned and burned.”

It is easy to mock him for some of his shop-worn philosophizing and suburban platitudes (he even cranks up “Elegy” with “The responsible sound of the lawn mower” in the first line), but often these poems surprise with their ability to capture startling images of the natural world and its inhabitants. There are few better cartographers of the Western expanses of our country than Stafford. And he is just as capable navigating the lonely stretches of being human as well (read “The Tillamook Burn” and “A Dedication” if you don’t believe me).

Five years ago, Loren Goodman published “Traveling Through the Dark (2005)” in Poetry. The poem remains mostly familiar in this newer form. But Goodman alters that final couplet to read:

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
Then pushed myself over the edge into the river.

It’s a good joke.

At least one reader was “horrified” at Goodman’s license, but the gag is evidence of something crucial about this poem, and a handful of others like it in this collection. How many poems could withstand such a reorientation of content and tone? 

In fact, some of the best poems here are burnished by the ways in which they both capture and succumb to rewriting, whether at the hands of younger poets, the wind’s lash in “Tornado,” or the scouring fires in “The Tillamook Burn,” in which “you can read His word down to the rock.”

No, Stafford is not a subtle poet. Or if he is, he’s as subtle as rolling a pregnant dead deer into a canyon. But what Stafford lacks in grace, perhaps, is a kind of sturdiness. What more could we ask of a landmark poet, and a landmark book? It will be these poems—revised or not—that outlast us, and stand as markers for future readers, as these lines from “The Only Card I Got on My Birthday Was from an Insurance Man” will:

                          when I die,
my glance drawn over galaxies,
all through one night let a candle nurse the dark
to mark this instant of what I was,
this once—not putting my hand out
blessing for business’ sake any frail markers
of human years: we want real friends or none;
what’s genuine will accompany every man.

Who travel these lonely wells can drink that star.

Eric Smith is a managing editor of Cellpoems. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Five Points, and Best New Poets 2010. He teaches at Marshall University.

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Robert Creeley for For Love
  • Donald F. Drummond for The Drawbridge
  • Robert Frost for In the Clearing
  • Kenneth Koch for Thank You and Other Poems
  • Howard Nemerov for The Next Room of the Dream
  • Winfield T. Scott for Collected Poems
  • Anne Sexton for All My Pretty Ones
  • William Carlos Williams for Pictures from Brueghel

Poetry Judges that Year: Rolfe Humphries, Henry Rago, Reed Whittemore

The Year in Literature:

  • Pictures from Brueghel by William Carlos Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
  • Howard Nemerov was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States.

Other Information:

  • William Stafford (1914-1993) was born in Hutchinson, KS.
  • During World War II, Stafford was a conscientious objector. As a registered pacifist he worked for the Civilian Public Service Camps doing forestry and soil conservation work.
  • Stafford’s son, Kim, wrote the memoir Early Morning about her relationship with his father.

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