Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Thursday, January 17, 2008

William Stafford: "Traveling through the Dark"

On Wednesday of each week this semester I teach an evening seminar. In order to avoid driving slowly through the center of town, I usually slip onto a bypass that skirts the city for those quick three exits between my home on the northern border of Valparaiso and the university campus located on the southern end of town. Although some construction has occurred along this length of road, including a couple of new shopping centers, one stretch of the roadway still runs alongside wooded areas and a few yet undeveloped fields.

Returning from class the other night, as in the past, I noticed a group of seven deer gathered in the middle of one meadow that extends from the woods and runs parallel to the highway. Sightings of deer are common in this area. Nearly every day I may view two, three, or more deer ambling along the roads in my neighborhood. In fact, some mornings when I walk down my driveway to the mailbox, especially in winter, I might find deer that have come out of the wooded ravine across the street from my house.

Nevertheless, my sighting of the deer beside the highway this week reminded me once more of William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark,” a poem I admire greatly and have taught regularly in my literature courses throughout the years. I know I’m not alone in my fondness for this work. Indeed, I believe there are few recent American poems that have enjoyed the popularity this piece has seen. Included in many anthologies and ever-present in syllabi of college English courses, “Traveling through the Dark” may be so well known for its narrative and the emotionally difficult situation in which the narrator discovers himself that readers easily could overlook the work’s technical excellence.


Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

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

The poem carefully combines more formal elements with the relaxed diction of free verse. The lines involve variations of rhythm that remind readers of the iambic pentameter one might find in a typical Robert Frost poem, although a Frost work the content in this piece more likely resembles could be “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which also refers to a pause for reflection along the road of life and which does not use iambic pentameter. In fact, as Jonathan Holden has remarked, the pattern of the lines in Stafford’s poem is mostly that of “four-stress accentuals.”

Stafford also flirts with rhyme by employing near rhymes, half rhymes, and off rhymes, particularly relying on assonance or consonance: “road” and “dead”; “killing” and “belly”; “waiting” and “hesitated”; “engine” and listen”; “swerving” and “river.” The partial and imperfect rhymes hide the poem’s deliberate construction enough that the language does not appear forced or artificial, with the narrative sounding frank and unfiltered. With its four quatrains and closing couplet, the poem even seems to feel like a camouflaged form, one that resembles an extended sonnet and reads like one.

Throughout the poem, Stafford embeds internal rhymes or echoing sounds as well, subtly delivering an underlying lyricism that does not call too much attention to itself; instead, the words almost come across as delivered in natural speech. The speaker’s informality seems as intimate as an admission confided to a friend or family member. In fact, Stafford has reported the initiation of this poem began as he related the story to one of his children the morning after he’d returned from teaching late one night, having experienced the event dramatized in the poem’s lines.

Many have observed the ways William Stafford bridges conflicting worlds in his poem: the human and nature, civilization and the wilderness, technology and the environment, emotion and reason, the physical and the mystical, life and death. As a number of other poets have done, Stafford conveys the clash that occurs when one state intrudes on the other, crosses unmarked borders, and delight drifts into disaster. (Indeed, when teaching this poem, I often link it to similar poems written by Elizabeth Bishop, another poet who likes to explore the possible harm when humans intrude upon the natural environment and mar the landscape.) Beginning the poem, the speaker at first chronicles a moment of discovery with an opening line that would appear positive if isolated: “Traveling through the dark I found a deer . . ..” However, as the line turns, so does the emotional impact on the reader: “dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.”

In fact, Stafford organizes his lines and words so carefully that he directs the reader through the experience both spatially and spiritually, as he evokes and lifts levels of emotion. Notice the order in which he reveals his finding: “the heap, a doe, a recent killing.” The speaker brings his reader closer while also gradually unveiling disturbing specificity. The speaker continually moves from darkness to light, from ignorance to comprehension. He repeats the technique later when he touches the deer: “her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting, / alive, still, never to be born.” The process moves from life to death, from an awareness of the situation to an understanding of the consequences. (Readers are invited to consider the various options for interpreting the word still: quiet, motionless, inanimate, stillborn, even now, yet, nevertheless, in spite of that, etc.) Indeed, at one point physical contact also causes a shift from the emotional to the rational: “My fingers touching her side brought me the reason.”

The need to make a decision in this situation confronted by the speaker leaves no pleasant choice. His options are as narrow as the road he travels in that mysterious and dark night. In the first stanza, he already acknowledges he must clear the route, “to swerve might make more dead.” However, by the final lines in the closing couplet, he returns to words originally mentioned in that opening stanza, and to his pattern of contemplation: “I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—, / then pushed her over the edge into the river.” Ironically, as many might suggest, in literature a river often symbolizes life, but also the inevitable passing of time that does not hesitate for anyone.

One could question the reference to “us all,” and wonder whether Stafford has the right to include everyone in his thinking. On the other hand, the speaker could only be referring to the group present at the scene: the deer, the fawn, the animated automobile whose engine “purred” as the speaker ironically gives life to this object along with the “wilderness” that is listening, the traveler himself, and even the reader now in attendance. In either case, Stafford creates a dramatic moment, a pause for reflection before he acts, as he knows he must.

Stafford’s imagery creates ambiguity and blurs distinctions between participants. When he writes, “I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red,” the syntax implies almost equally that the exhaust was turning red but so was the speaker, and some of the emotions traditionally associated through symbolism or connotations linked to the color red (blood, embarrassment, anger, aggression, conflict, violence, sacrifice, war, a warning of danger, etc.) may be evoked and loosely tied to the speaker’s state of mind.

Some have criticized this poem as too sentimental or for a perceived reliance on the pathetic fallacy. Richard Hugo once even responded to the poem: “stop thinking hard for us all, Bill, and get that damned deer off the road before somebody kills himself.” Nevertheless, I regard this poem as another of the many examples where William Stafford approaches sentimentality by daring to express sentiment so clearly; yet, he ultimately avoids overstepping the bounds and trespassing on sentimentality because he concludes the poem with his blunt statement of action. Indeed, when he composed the poem he shared it with a local writers’ group whose members were shocked by the abrupt and unsentimental ending.

Much of this history of the poem is chronicled along with many others in a wonderful trio of documentary videos with interviews of Stafford and commentary on his poetry, produced and preserved by Mike Markee and Vince Wixon, which are now available as DVDs. The three videos (What the River Says, The Life of the Poem, and The Methow River Poems) are accompanied by an informative viewer’s guide. Last semester, when Wixon came to Valparaiso University as a visiting poet, he exhibited exuberance for Stafford and knowledge of his poetry that must have served to infuse the project with so much energy and enlightenment. I highly recommend these videos for viewing, especially on a day like today, William Stafford’s birthday.

William Stafford was born in Kansas on today’s date (January 17) in 1914; about the same time Robert Frost’s great early book, A Boy’s Will, was just becoming known to many readers. Robert Frost was already 40-years old. (Indeed, Stafford’s first book of poems was published when he was in his forties.) Although Stafford lived in another section of the twentieth century and made his home in different regions of the country (he is most closely associated with the Northwest, where he died in 1993) than Frost’s New England, I believe William Stafford still stands as another legitimate heir to Frost as one of America’s highly ranked poets who write about the intersection of humans and nature, the infringement of individuals on the wilderness. A biographical summary on Stafford at the Academy of American Poets observes: “Stafford’s poems are often deceptively simple. Like Robert Frost’s, however, they reveal a distinctive and complex vision upon closer examination.”

Today, after witnessing those deer so close to the highway while I drove home the other night, I recalled “Traveling through the Dark” and I remembered Stafford again. Therefore, I decided to revisit Stafford’s poetry once more for “closer examination,” and I thought I’d jot these notes as an expression of appreciation, my minor way of honoring him on his birthday.


Anonymous said...

This masterpiece was part of my assigned reading in a creative writing course. I've never studied poetry, so your notes on this particular poem were quite useful.

While reading it, my throat tightened and I fought back tears. I sat for a moment, chastising myself for being so emotional. I love animals probably a little more than I actually love people. The words were simple and to the point and I felt as if I were standing there with Mr. Stafford, helping him decide what needed to be done.

To me, his work sums up what my practical parents drilled into my head since Day One: you can think about it, turn it around and around in your head, but ultimately...you gotta do what you gotta do.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this post; it really helped me to appreciate the poem and to want to read more of Stafford's work.

Haydn Reiss said...

Since you are an admirer of Bill Stafford, check out my new film, "Every War Has Two Losers", based on Bill's journals and centered on his poems and thoughts connected to his life as a conscientious objector. www.everywar.com The dvd also includes my first film, the 1994 "William Stafford & Robert Bly: A Literary Friendship". I'd appreciate help in spreading the word. Thanks! Haydn Reiss

Paul Fried, Northfield, MN said...

Part of the genius of this poem, to me, is that it's like a Shakespearean sonnet with an extra quatrain.

Traditionally, there is a turn or twist to the plot in quatrain three, and that happens in this poem but then we get an extra "oasis" quatrain of hesitation, appropriately, before the final couplet.

The poem would have made sense without that extra quatrain, but it would not have been as good.