To get to Tillamook, Oregon, head west from Portland and veer left onto Oregon Route 6. The next 50 miles are a winding, sometimes steep road that takes you up and over the Coast Range, through parts of the Tillamook Burn, following the Wilson River down into a valley full of dairy farms that supply the famous creamery. My relatives have lived in Tillamook for as long as I’ve been visiting them (more than 30 years now), and I’ve traveled this route more times than I can count.
I first fell in love with William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” when I read it in college. One of the most frequently taught and anthologized of his poems, I’m sure this poem was the first encounter with Stafford that thousands of other aspiring critics and poets had since its publication in 1962.
I may analyze poetry I read to pick up techniques and hone my craft, but the poems I love are frequently those with which I feel a more personal connection. (There are also hundreds of analyses of the poem online, so I won’t do so here.) Even though I liked “Traveling through the Dark” quite a lot, it didn’t become a favorite until I made that personal connection.
Reading You Must Revise Your Life just a few years ago, I learned that an experience on the same road between Portland and Tillamook that I’d traveled so many times had inspired Stafford to write the poem.
Rationally, I object to either the poet’s intent or biography influencing the value I place on a poem. It also seems downright silly that my “Oh, oh! I’ve been there!” reaction would influence my affection for a poem.
Nevertheless, the simple fact of shared experience with the poet makes William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” one of my most beloved poems.