Thursday, April 19, 2018

Poetry saving America Day 19 #NationalPoetryMonth

This, the eighteenth in Tony Hoagland's list of Twenty Poems That Could Save America, is a poem we have studied in several classes over the years. We have yet to "enjoy" this poem, unlike many of the other works we read. It is uncomfortably real in the dilemma it portrays: no really good choice, only better or worse options. [Sidebar confession: until we started this piece, we've always pictured this poem being set in the Winter. That can't be correct. Does in North America drop their fawns in late May or June. We think it was "the dark" that threw us off. Metaphorical, perhaps?]


whitetail deer doe, sans fawn(?)
whitetail deer doe, sans fawn(?)
Photo by J. Harrington

The events described in the poem seem to us to raise a number of questions we Americans often try to avoid answering:
  • Why us?
  • Why here and now?
  • Can't we let someone else handle this?
Implied in Hoagland's choice of this poem, we believe, is a perspective that we Americans must improve our ability to make better ethical decisions. To do so, we must more honestly and openly engage with each other, remembering to "not let the perfect become the enemy of the good."

poetry teaches the ethical nature of choice
To visualize this poetry-enriched near-future, please imagine that somewhere in the echoey, high-ceilinged meeting rooms of our nation’s Capitol, a congressional committee is in session. It is midsummer in Washington, D.C., and a pitcher of water is on the table, beads of condensation on its side; the ice has melted. A difficult bill is also on the table, one in which the exigencies of the political present must be weighed against the needs of the future — say, for example, that the subsidized production of corn for ethanol might be given priority over other alternatives to gasoline. Too many Midwestern farmers have become dependent on these subsidies. But if policy is changed now, they will suffer.

“It’s like that William Stafford poem,” says one congressional aide. “What’s the title — the one about the deer?”

“Traveling through the Dark,” says a representative from Missouri. The poem begins:

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.

“That’s the one,” says the aide. “Yeah, that scene where the guy has to decide whether to push the mother deer over the edge of the cliff to make the road safer — even though the deer is pregnant, with a fawn inside her.”

“To swerve might make more dead,” says someone else.

“Yes,” says the first legislator, “here we are, getting ready to choose some lives over others, to clear the road for traffic. Are we going to push the deer over the side of the highway?”

“When you put it like that,” says another, “I think we should wait.”

“That’s not deciding,” says a third congressman, “that’s procrastinating. I say we vote right now.”

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.

“Traveling through the Dark” is a well-known poem, but one with legs yet — it offers a lucid ethical dilemma that foregrounds the nature of moral choice.

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.


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