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.
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.