Traveling through the Dark
Do you like real life stories with drama and plot twists? Are you tired of sunshine and happy endings? If you said "yes," or even "um, I don't know, I guess," then William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark" might just be the poem for you. We lost you when we said "poem," right? Wait. Come back. You see, Stafford was an interesting guy. Born in Kansas in 1914, Stafford studied at the University of Kansas and the University of Iowa. Later, he spent many years in Oregon where he taught at Lewis and Clark College, eventually being named Poet Laureate of Oregon in 1975.
That makes sense to us; he wrote a lot—seriously. His archived journals show consecutive daily entries totaling around 20,000 pages (and you thought your English teacher required a lot of writing). Even still, he didn't publish his first major book of poetry until he was 48, an age when most writers are considered to be in mid-career. Along the way, Stafford was also a pacifist and a conscientious objector during WWII. But his focus was his writing. When he died of a heart attack in 1993, he was working on a poem on the very morning of his death.
"Traveling through the Dark," in particular, is a poem that really does tell a story in a plain-spoken, direct way. Even you poetry-haters out there might just find something to like in this one. The action all takes place on a mountain road at night. When a driver stops to pull a dead deer out of the road, he encounters something unexpected that makes him consider some big questions about mortality and nature along the road of life: what do we do when confronted with death? While we are living, how do we act responsibly as part of the natural world?
The poem was published in 1962 (the title poem of his first major collection) and is one of Stafford's most well-known poems. The poem's popularity is due in part to the fact that, like many of his poems, it couples a conversational tone with good old-fashioned story telling. The themes and issues present in his work (humanity and nature, place, family, his Native American heritage) arise from the telling of the tales. The themes are secondary, in a sense, to the stories themselves. Interested yet?
Why Should I Care?
We've all been there—well, not there in the sense of standing on the side of the road with a dead deer that we have to dispose of, but rather in a situation where we are forced to choose between doing what's right and doing what's easy. It might be a situation with a friend or family member or it might be something that will never be known to another living soul. (You accidentally drop your cheeseburger wrapper on the floor. Nobody sees you. Pick it up or move on and let the guy in the funny hat making minimum wage get it later?).
At its heart, William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark" is about that moment when nobody is looking. It is about that moment when we could turn our backs and walk away from our responsibilities without any immediate, personal repercussions (except maybe that pesky conscience thing). What we do in those moments can tell us a great deal about ourselves. It is in those moments, without any peer pressure or outside influence, that we make decisions and act based solely on our character and beliefs. If we are willing to look at ourselves and our actions honestly, these can be very interesting, very eye-opening times.
"Traveling through the Dark" lets us experience one of these moments as a secret, outside observer. We get to put ourselves in the speaker's position and ask ourselves what we would do. There is even a chance that the poem will pop into your mind the next time you drop a burger wrapper. With no one watching, will you do—what's right or what's easy?