William Stafford, the March for Life and the Power of Poetry

COMMENTARY: Stafford’s ‘Traveling Through the Dark’ draws attention to three factors that abortion advocates persist in denying.

Photo illustration of 'Traveling Through the Dark'
Photo illustration of 'Traveling Through the Dark' (photo: Kylie Ardill / Shutterstock)

William Stafford (1914-1993) is a distinguished American poet, having written 63 volumes of poetry and prose. His first major collection of poems, Traveling Through the Dark, won the National Book Award in 1963. In 1970, he was named poet to the Library of Congress, a position now known as the “Poet Laureate.”

Poets, in general, do not speak to a wide audience. Another poet, Don Marquis, has remarked that writing poetry is like dropping rose petals into the Grand Canyon and listening for an echo. Nonetheless, poets have something to say that is worth hearing. 

In finding their own voice, they have stubbornly resisted the wave of political correctness that saturates their environment. Poets are not running for election or trying to be popular. Yet, as Percy Bysshe Shelley has stated, they are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Consider, for example, the influence of Shakespeare.

In a poem Stafford calls “Traveling Through the Dark,” which shares the title of his National Book of the Year collection, he tells of a motorist who comes upon the carcass of a deer on the side of a narrow road. He realizes that the proper thing to do, with the safety of other drivers in mind, is to roll the animal into the canyon. 

Something, however, causes him to hesitate. Though the deer had “stiffened,” she “was large in the belly.” He touched her side and found it to be warm, leading him to the realization that “her fawn lay there waiting, alive, still, never to be born.” He “thought hard” over this unfortunate and troublesome development.

Stafford and his wife raised four children. He was a pacifist and during World War II, working in the civilian public-service camps. He was a man who respected life and abhorred violence. 

“Traveling Through the Dark” draws attention to three factors that abortion advocates persist in denying. First, the fawn is identifiable. It is not an amorphous collection of cells or something of unknowable character. It is a fawn. In the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, Justice Harry Blackmun denied the nature of the unborn child, stating that the term “person” applied only postnatally. 

Second, the fawn is alive. It is a living entity and, if aborted, would be killed through an act of violence. Blackmun argued that the court could not, and, therefore need not, “resolve the difficult question when life begins.”

Third, the fawn has a dynamic inclination. It is waiting to be born. The tragedy of the fawn is that it will never be able to scamper freely in the forest or do any of the things proper to a fawn on its way to becoming a mature deer. The driver mourns the loss of the fawn as pro-life advocates mourn the loss of millions of aborted babies. The Roe v. Wade decision was, as Justice Byron White stated in his dissent, an act of “raw judicial power.”

Judge Robert Bork was defeated in his bid to become a Supreme Court justice essentially because he respected the Constitution and called Roe v. Wade unconstitutional. As President Ronald Reagan, who nominated Bork, later remarked, “I believe, as he [Bork] does, that judges are to interpret rather than rewrite the Constitution the Founding Fathers crafted with such care and precision.” 

The poem describes a double tragedy: the death of the deer and the imminent death of her offspring. The poet, through his character, views the situation with sadness. Both the deer and her fawn have been cheated of life.

On Jan. 21, the annual March for Life will take place in the nation’s capital. Next year, Roe v. Wade will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Untold thousands will show their support for life, at a yearly event that, as far as The New York Times and other leading newspapers are concerned, never happens.

The march will speak with the voice of a poet, but also with the knowledge of a scientist. Abortion is the killing of a human being who, in the warmth of its mother’s womb, is waiting to be born. The marchers are, on the subject of abortion, both pacifists and conscientious objectors. But their courageous spirit will not be honored by the multitude that live by the ideological delusion that the taking of innocent, unborn human life is merely a choice.

In a sense, we are all waiting to be born. M. Scott Peck has written A World Waiting to Be Born: Civility Rediscovered. Yet we must ask the disturbing question, “How will the world rediscover its civility, if it continues to deny the right to be born to millions of innocent unborn human beings?” Abortion advocates have created a trap for themselves. In denying the birth of others, they are denying the birth of themselves.

Christ commands each one of us to be born again. But a second birth cannot be achieved unless it is preceded by an initial birth.

The factor that distinguishes poetry from prose is that the way it is stated is as important, if not more important, than what is said. A poem has a communicative advantage over prose because it combines what is said with how it is said. There are no hymns or odes or psalms in praise of abortion. 

A good poet is attuned to life. He either reveres its mystery or objects to its desecration. Stafford’s poem was published in 1962, 11 years before Roe v. Wade. It was written in a cultural atmosphere that was free of any strong incentive to legalize abortion. 

Sir Herbert Read has made the case that the artist anticipates later social experiences. He lives, as psychotherapist Rollo May attests, “on the frontier of society ... with one foot in the future.”

William Stafford is telling us, out of the past, that if the death of an unborn fawn is a tragedy, all the more so is the death of an unborn human being.

Duccio’s ‘Pentecost’ (1308)

Pray the Pentecost Novena

The prayer recalls and invites Catholics to participate in the nine days that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles spent in prayer after Christ ascended into heaven.