In the freewheeling world of bicycles, which I enter as a bike-path commuter for half-an-hour's peacefulness in the morning and again in late afternoon, the summer talk centers on bigness.
Automobile companies, after energy- tight years of downsizing, are back to upsizing. Car owners want to uncramp themselves into movable hotels again. The trucking lobby, whose aim is the legalization of road-hogging, is pushing for wide loads to become wider. Then longer.
To my brother and sister cyclists-- there are 105 million of us--I offer the suggestion that we have loftier things to discuss this summer than who are our worst menaces--car owners or truck drivers. We should put our feet on the pedals and heads in the clouds and ask: who better praises us--the novelists or poets?
The question is current. James E. Starrs, a law professor at George Washington University and a cyclist who common-wheeled across America three times, has just written "The Noiseless Tenor: The Bicycle in Literature."
If he has covered every transcontinental inch of our country, Starrs also appears to have gone over every line of prose and poetry written about the bicycle. Novelists who have written about what William Saroyan called "the noblest invention of mankind" range from Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller and Stephen Crane in America to Vladimir Nabokov, D. H. Lawrence and Samuel Beckett abroad.
All would co-sign the testimony proclaimed in wide-hearted fervor by a character in "The Red and the Green" by Iris Murdoch: "The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart."
For Henry Miller, the bicycle was "my best friend." For Saroyan, "as I rode my bike, music began to happen to me." Bicycling literary couples, whom Starrs calls "head over wheels in love," included Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and Will and Ariel Durant. When Henry Adams' wife died, and the grief would not go away, he learned to bicycle at 50 "as new means of life. Nothing else offered itself." Leo Tolstoy, at 67 and mourning the death of his 7-year-old son, Vanichka, became a cyclist. He found joy again.
The novelists are stirring, but after several hundred carefree miles of thinking about it, I favor the poets as the more lyrical singers of the bicycle. Poetry is the language of graceful metaphors, the bicycle a metaphor for graceful motion. The pairing is natural.
W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Kenneth Rexroth have produced bikish verse. In "Bicycle Rider," Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota wrote a poem to his daughter, Mary, that could be addressed by any parent to a child:
Teeth bare to the wind
Knuckle-white grip on handle bars
You push the pedals of no return,
Let loose new motion and speed.
The earth turns with the multiplied
Force of your wheels.
Do not look back.
Feet light on the brake
Ride the bicycle of your will
Down the spine of the world,
Ahead of your time, into life.
I will not say Go slow.
In the 10 years I have been commuting, I have seen cyclists who break traffic laws, scare pedestrians and forget to look at the roadway flowers. These frenetics need a breakthrough to poetry. I know of a cyclist like this, formerly a speeder and scofflaw, who slowed up. It has already produced results: a poem and a new woman friend. He wrote this:
A cyclist's thumb sounds a bell,
a walker's heart rings back a smile.
The bell is soft,
the smile softer.
On the sidewalk between the embassies,
rowed orderly in a disordered city,
They pass on mornings
while feelings stay the day.
They stop to talk:
She of new shoots, he of old growings.
Neither is different, this new and old.
Shared samenesses, like the miles, lie ahead.