Traveling through the Dark with William Stafford

Librarian Nancy Pearl talked about some of her favorite poets this morning on NPR, and she wrote a review that extends the radio interview. I resonated with her gloss on the kind of poetic voice she is drawn to, which sounds to me like a fine description of what William Carlos Williams mapped as the American verse idiom:

I also most appreciate writers who use everyday language and straightforward diction, without any attempt to puzzle or frustrate the reader. But at the same time I want the poems to somehow say more than the words themselves do. I want the mystery and the glory of a poem to arise from the way the poet has put words together. I think that the poets I describe below all exemplify this kind of writing, which is why I like them so much.

I was very pleased when Pearl named Richard Hugo and William Stafford as favorite poets, for both of them influenced me in my salad days:

What I most appreciate about Stafford’s The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems is the way the narrator’s personality comes through in each poem. After finishing them, I feel as though I know the speaker intimately: his thoughts, his hopes, his fears. Stafford sometimes uses rhyme in his poems, although not always, and the poems themselves seem deceptively easy to get until you read them two or three times, when the meanings behind the meaning begins to grow on you. “Reaching Out to Turn on a Light” is such a poem; the last stanza will take your breath away.

Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo is filled with memorable lines and poems that I read and reread, and each time find something new to appreciate. Like Stafford’s poetry, Hugo’s is conversational and totally approachable. He writes about what it’s like to live in this world, one filled with friendship, love and loss, and especially the places he has lived and loved. My favorite poem of Hugo’s is “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” which begins: “You might come here Sunday on a whim./Say your life broke down. The last good kiss/you had was years ago.”

I’ve been thinking about Bill Stafford all day. In my last year of high school I won a poetry contest sponsored by Scholastic magazine. What mattered more than the cash prize and publication of some poems was the knowledge that Bill was one of the judges (along with Donald Hall). A decade later, Stafford came to my town to give a poetry reading in a church basement. Afterward I reminded him of our tenuous connection, and he said graciously, “Yes, I remember that poem.”

That night he read the poem that gave the title to his collection, Traveling through the Dark, which won the National Book Award in 1963. It’s the William Stafford poem that first impressed me over forty years ago:

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 on Wikipedia

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