For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Monday, 31 March 2014

Traveling Through The Dark

While I was editing my poetry magazine The Passionate Transitory, would-be contributors occasionally asked me what kind of poem I was looking for. Some asked me to suggest a 'model' poem as example and guide. Some asked how you wrote a good poem.

It's hard to say what makes a good poem, but you know one when you see one. I've been thinking what poem I would choose if I had to choose just one as perfect paradigm, one that seems to embody everything I like in a good poem. Naturally this is a very personal choice (I would love to know your own choices). This is the poem I came up with:

Traveling Through The Dark

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.

WILLIAM STAFFORD

It's probably Stafford's best-known poem, and deservedly famous, I think. I clearly remember when I first heard this poem read on the radio years ago. Its impact on me was enormous, and it haunts me still. For me, it's got everything: apparent simplicity, great technical skill disguised by an almost conversational tone, a concision in which every word counts and resonates, a moral/life dilemma, an ambiguity, a confrontation between the modern human world and the natural world.

11 comments:

David said...

Thank you for introducing me to this poem. It reminds me of one of my own favourites - 'Interruption to a journey' by Norman MacCaig. Some poems just haunt you, don't they.

Other poems at the top of my list would have to include something by Wallace Stevens (I especially love 'Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird' and 'The Snowman') and pretty much any of the haiku of Basho.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, David, I love MacCaig, and see the correspondence between Stafford's poem and MacCaig's.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Beautiful poem Robert - didn't know it at all.
My favourite? Well it changes. Each time I go to our Poetry gathering a new poem emerges to bowl me over. At the moment it is Larkin.

James Owens said...

It is a rich poem that repays careful thought and returning to it year after year. This morning I am struck by the deep moral implications of the phrase "our group," as Stafford uses it in the poem.

A choice of poems that embody what I'd like to see? It changes, of course, but today I would say Robert Hass's "Meditation at Lagunitas" or Heaney's "Clearances."

Friko said...

Yes, it is a haunting poem; once heard, never forgotten.

If anybody in blogland were able to write a poem like this, I would say, they don’t belong here.

Susan Scheid said...

You've beautifully described the elements of that Stafford poem. There's another of his I became aware of many years ago that I thought and think has such qualities:

One Home

Mine was a midwest home--you can keep your world.
Plain black hats rode the thoughts that made our code.
We sang hymns in the house; the roof was near God.

The light bulb that hung in the pantry made a wan light,
but we could read by it the names of preserves--
outside, the buffalo grass, and the wind in the night.

A wildcat sprang at Grandpa on the Fourth of July
when he was cutting plum bushes for fuel,
before Indians pulled the West over the edge of the sky.

To anyone who looked at us we said, "My friend";
liking the cut of a thought, we could say "Hello."
(But plain black hats rode the thoughts that made our code.)

The sun was over our town; it was like a blade.
Kicking cottonwood leaves we ran toward storms.
Wherever we looked the land would hold us up.

Loren said...

My only problem with the poem is that I read it so often to my English classes that I wore it out. It's impossible for me to remember my initial reaction.

Teaching just a few miles from where Stafford did, and often driving those same roads, it's impossible not to identify with the poem, though.

It's definitely a Pacific Northwest classic, as is Stafford himself.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for commenting, Pat, James, Friko, Susan and Loren.

I did not know that Robert Hass poem, James, but looked it up. It's absolutely superb. Here's a link to it if anyone's interested: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177014

roselle said...

OH! One of my own big favourites!

And yes I too would add 'Meditation at Lagunitas' - that's one I teach, and love the fact that poets who are originally turned off by all the opening abstractions are gradually seduced once we get to the concrete detail (this to me exemplifies much of Buddhist understanding); and on further reading and discussion, once they 'get' it, begin to really love it.

There are SO MANY 'favourite poems'. Today I'd add James Wright's 'Lying in a Hammock' and his horse one; Heaney's 'Postscript'; several by Mary Oliver; several by Jane Hirshfield, and just about everything by W S Merwin. I'd agree with David too re 13 Ways... Oh, and and and...

Dominic Rivron said...

I think it's wrong to place too much emphasis on technique. I think good technique is invisible (this goes for musical composition too). It has to be invisible - a sheet of clear glass through which the poem can be seen. This is why discussions about poetry having to(or not having to) rhyme are so sterile.

A good poem is one which communicates what it sets out to communicate. What it communicates must be insightful in some way and defy any simpler verbal communication.

Good poems range from elegantly constructed sonnets to free, unstructured, short-lined pieces, to fragmentary graffiti.

By way of illustration, I've always been fond of this, by Norman MacCaig:

Patriot

My only country
is six feet high
and whether I love it or not
I’ll die
for its independence.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Roselle... wonderful choices...

...and Dominic — technique: 'a sheet of clear glass through which the poem can be seen' — yes! Great comment, and I love MacCaig.