Monday, March 21, 2011

Poetry and Walking

Edward Hirsch has an essay, "'My Pace Provokes My Thoughts’: Poetry and Walking,” in the March / April American Poetry Review. This immediately captured my interest as I, too, am a poet who walks. I began regular walking about 20 years ago, initially because I needed a way to relax, to get out of my own head. I immediately found that walking, even just 30 minutes, energized me and boosted my spirits. I felt more fit. I slept better. I became jollier.

Walking has become a regular practice when the weather permits. Sometimes in winter I find myself longing, almost aching for warm weather so I can get out walking again. I felt that intensely throughout this year's long, hard winter.

My practice now is to go with an ipod and listen to music. It perks me up, and it fills my head with words, music, images. I pay attention when I'm walking in a way I don't when I'm driving by. I say hello to other walkers and sometimes exchange a few words. Walking is both solitary and civilized. It stimulates my thoughts and, as Hirsch argues and documents, it fuels the creation of poetry.

Here's a brief excerpt from the essay:

“Poetry is a vocation. It is not a career but a calling. For as long as I can remember I have associated that calling, my life’s work, with walking. I love the leisurely amplitude, the spaciousness, of taking a walk, of heading somewhere, anywhere, on foot. I love the sheer adventure of it, setting out and taking off.  You cross a threshold and you’re on your way. Time is suspended. Writing poetry is such an intense experience that it helps to start the process in a casual or wayward frame of mind. Poetry is written from the body as well as the mind, and the rhythm and pace of a walk—the physical activity—can get you going and keep you grounded. It’s a kind of light meditation. Daydreaming is one of the key sources of poetry—a poem often starts as a daydream that finds its way into language—and walking seems to bring a different sort of alertness, an associative kind of thinking, a drifting state of mind.

A walk is a way of entering the body, and also of leaving it. I am both here and there, betwixt and between, strolling along, observing things, thinking of something else.  I move in a liminal space. I recognize that walking often quickens my thoughts, inducing a flow of ideas, and that, as Paul Valéry puts it in ‘Poetry and Abstract Thought,’ ‘there is a certain reciprocity between my pace and my thoughts—my thoughts modify my pace; my pace provokes my thoughts.’”

Here's a walking poem I love by Billy Collins:

Aimless Love

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door –
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

The next time you go walking, make a mental note of some of the things you see. Let them be random. After you get home, see if you can work them into a poem. You might use Collins' ambling method as your model, going from beginning to end.

I'm happy to say that spring is almost here, warm days have been hinted at, buds are on trees. Let the walking begin!


  1. Sometimes I take my Westies along when I walk; they make sure we go slow and are attentive. Fortunately, where I live, the county has made green spaces a priority, and there's also the very long trail that goes south down past Mt. Vernon. Walking is good for so many things!

  2. Sadly the rain has found us today, so I cannot go for a walk, but I did make it to the gym for a swim yesterday. And after hearing you read your wonderful poetry Diane.

    Glad to have finally met you!


  3. Sadly for sure. Snow here! And more expected on Wed, so the spring walking campaign will have to wait a bit longer. Thanks, Elizabeth for coming to the reading! Nice to meet a cyber pal in person.

  4. Thanks, Diane!

    I walk too and even spent time outdoors during the snows this winter (the hush of the snow and the sound of the wind in the treetops is always incredibly beautiful). Walking at twilight and just after dark are my favorites.

    If you walk south and I walk north, maybe we'll meet up! :-))

  5. Nice meditation! I walk too, but at the mall, which is not the same. Where is this beautiful picture at the top?

  6. Mall walking just doesn't count. I used to think that all the hours I spent on my feet teaching should have counted as exercise. The body seems to know the difference between working, shopping, exercise--and only gives credit for exercise.

    I don't know where that picture's setting is. Doesn't look like NJ.


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