I love this post on Antler about “Walking Poets.”
Adele Konyndyk writes about several poems that explore the experience of the solitary walk, including Raymond Carver’s poem “This Morning.” As a poet who walks– heck, as a human being who walks– I relate to the lines she quotes from Carver, who writes of that paradox of contemplative walking: how the body’s movement generates stillness for the restless mind. Being outside stills the walker’s mind, and he’s grateful for even just the briefest freedom from “All the things/ I hoped would go away this morning.”
For me, writing is as much escape from “all the things” as it is an entrance into them. When I walk, my thoughts have wider horizons to stretch out in. I’m not trapped in their spiral, in the hurry of the clock and the press toward efficiency. I am separate from my thoughts. I can walk them out.
When I lived in St Malo for a winter, I used to take daily evening walks– they felt like flights– around the wild, walled perimeter of the city. I liked walking into the furious wind that blew in off the waves. I liked the way the sun squeezed through the closing doors of the clouds, bruise-colored and alive. And when I got back to my little apartment, I liked the way my cheeks stung red and my head still roared with the echo of the wind.
Lines for poems have come to me on walks. Sometimes, drafts that I wrestle with at my desk seem to untangle themselves when I take them on the road.
This fall, I’ve had the pleasure of leading 52 high school freshman in a 10-week creative writing course. Together, we looked at a variety of different ways in which poets have documented a particular place through writing. And walking was central to several of these pieces. Among many shorter works, we read Alice Oswald’s Dart, Erik Anderson’s The Poetics of Trespass, Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave, and Haryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed.
One of my favorite exercises, which I borrowed from writer and teacher Jay Ponteri, was taking a tanka walk through the high school building. It’s based on Urban Tumbleweed, 365 tanka poems recording Mullen’s daily walks through Los Angeles, where she lives. The students and I carried scraps of paper and scribbled notes about what we saw, heard, thought, and felt during our 15-minute journey. Then we practiced writing a group tanka on the board, loosening the form’s traditional rules (a la Mullen) and allowing the poems to be simply 31-syllable poems, broken into three lines as we saw fit. The students wrote some astonishing poems: compressed, detailed, imaginative.
I think it’s movement that does this. Movement gets the rhythm of feet and heart into our thoughts, smoothing their disorder into pattern. It helps us make great leaps between inner and outer experience. It puts us back together again, by connecting the world of the mind to the world outside.
I also see reading poetry as (to borrow an Antler phrase) a devotional practice for spiritual formation. Like poet Peggy Rosenthal, I believe that the very act of reading poetry is very much like taking a walk—that “its rhythms, its sound-echoes, its line-breaks and stanza-breaks, all conspire to give us pause.” Both walking and poetry are, to me, a kind of prayer.
I often pray when I walk, when for whatever reason I just can’t calm my mind enough to stit still. Walking is sometimes the best way to listen deeply, to “be still and know that I am God.” In the same way, writing poetry outside can be centering, quieting the mind’s chatter by focusing on language’s rhythms.
Carolyn Kizer writes: “Poetry is not prayer, but it is not not prayer.” I’m often hesitant to equate the two, because for me, they are very different, separate things. And yet, not so different. Not so separate. Perhaps walking is the best metaphor for the mystery at the center of these practices, for the moving Spirit that breathes through and animates everything.