By Edward Hirsch
Sunday, April 20, 2008
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 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, strolling along, observing things, thinking of something else. The physical experience activates the imagination. This seems to me as true, say, for the cosmopolitan Frank O'Hara, our Apollinaire, who liked to mingle with Manhattan crowds on his lunch hour, as it was for the gentleman farmer Robert Frost, our Horace, who often needed to rove out to the edge of the woods that surrounded his land.
"Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility," Gary Snyder suggests in The Practice of the Wild, and in this way it parallels reading and writing. You enter the unknown and the process -- the experience -- humbles, energizes, challenges and changes you.
Wandering, reading, writing -- these three activities are for me intimately linked. They are all ways of observing both the inner and the outer weather, of being carried away, of getting lost and returning. I started to get serious about poetry in the late '60s when I was a freshman at Grinnell College. I vividly remember how I used to walk out into the deep Iowa night to steady myself and think about what I'd read, to go over the words and repeat the phrases to myself. I was studying the English Metaphysical poets then (John Donne, George Herbert) and trying to learn something from the English Romantics, who were prodigious walkers.
Some nights I ended up on the edge of town (like Robert Frost, "I have been one acquainted with the night"), other nights I'd circle back and sneak into Burling Library just before closing. The librarians would turn off the lights, but 15 minutes later the cleaning staff would come in and turn them on again. I'd just wait in the dark and then spend the night in a cubicle poring over the texts.
My walks continued on another plane. I walked with Wordsworth at Cambridge ("I was the Dreamer; they the dream; I roamed/Delighted through the motley spectacle") and T.S. Eliot in London ("A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many"). I walked with the holy eccentrics of English poetry, such as Thomas Traherne ("To walk is by a thought to go;/To move in spirit to and fro") and William Blake ("I wander thro' each charter'd street"). I was on fire with the movement of words. In the early morning, I'd step out into the breaking day, startled by the cold Midwestern light, suddenly alone again, exhausted, exhilarated.
On a fellowship year in Europe after I graduated from college, I began my lifelong habit of working in coffee shops and cafés, sometimes downgraded to fast food joints. Those were the great days of youth, of mispronouncing names, gawking at menus, art, women. . . . I stayed in hostels, walked constantly. That's when I discovered the work of Baudelaire, who inaugurated our modernity, and his notion of the flâneur, "a botanist of the sidewalk." The concept of the flâneur inspired and, indeed, still inspires me. Baudelaire helped me consider the poet as a walker in a modern city, whatever that city is, even a city awash in automobiles (I have lived in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston and New York), a walker who inevitably ends up sitting down with an open book and a pad of paper.
"A poem is a walk," A. R. Ammons claimed. Some of my first characteristic poems were pieces in which I imagined walking around the city with beloved poets as guides.
My model was the way that Dante called on Virgil to lead him through the terrifying circles of hell. And so I called on the Peruvian poet César Vallejo to walk with me in Paris, where he had written his deeply human poems ("Poemas humanos") and where he died in poverty, and the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca to walk with me on the Upper West Side of New York City, where he had spent a critical year of his life, which resulted in his startling testament, a collection he called Poeta en Nueva York (Poet in New York). These were the poems of my apprenticeship, but in the end my guides deserted me, as all guides must, and left me to my own devices.
Now I walk in Prospect Park, which is near my apartment in Brooklyn. In April, I coast along under the trees, which seem poised on the edge of a great transformation, and try to stay away from the shadowy edges that seem stuck somewhere in mid-March. I walk over Brooklyn Bridge, which so inspired Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and make my way to the lower East Side, where my grandfather first stayed when he came to the New World.
One morning last year I sat in an empty coffee shop in the early morning and tried to write a poem about walking with my grandfather on the bridge over the Chicago River when I was 8 years old. It was our last walk before he died. I remembered eating cotton candy and marveling at the intricate cables of the bridge. Suddenly the memory of taking his hand became so physically overwhelming that I had to get up and roam around for a while. I was in two places at once. Then I came back and revised the lines. For a poet, that's the writing life. ·