from RSR Featured Art © watercolor by Carol McCoy
THE POETRY OF WALKING
“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” ― Mary Oliver
Would you like to journey down a path that will help conjure creative insight? A common premise in Taoism is, in the literal sense, that Tao means Path, a road that needs three simultaneous active elements to make it real: the road itself, the person, and the walking the road. I find poetry is like the Tao in that a poem asks one to increase awareness and to be mindful. It’s a process, not a thing, and walking is a way to distill mindfulness into spontaneous creativity.
As an emerging poet, I do the best thinking while walking. If I were deprived of the luxury of daily strolls to find reprieve from the technical age in which I live, I’d run the risk of slipping into a mechanical modality of thought. Walking leads my way into the fertile fields of in-depth creativity. Peripatetic poets are nothing new. Many poets walk. Mary Oliver, for one, who I admire, has spent a lot of time walking in the woods, which is quite apparent in her poetry. I’ve sometimes wondered if she walks when faced with the blankness of so-called writer’s block, that self-induced hypnosis that paralyzes creative flow. For me, walking in the woods can be a beneficial practice to aid in sidestepping such blockage.
Perhaps that’s why there’s a poetic form called the Walk Poem. There are different types of Walk Poems, and, of course, they all require walking. It’s one of my favorite poems to write. When my mind is as blank as the page in front of me, a vegetative buzzing white, I take to walking to generate “good energy,” a common phrase in Taoist scripture that is the very stuff of creation.
Then, when injected with a dose of creative energy, I return to my studio to write. But I don’t get too slaphappy. Writing is like swimming under water with your eyes closed: if you’re not careful you could break your nose on the side of the pool. So, you must swim slowly. I have to spend ample time to tame a poem or it might turn out mad or incoherent. The more one employs patience while writing, by allowing experience to gestate into language in the womb of the mind, the more one develops a voice of their own, and the more errors (glitches in rhythm or awkward line breaks) glare like a snowman on a Bermuda Island beach. Patience—when in the cacophonous company of the computer screen, cell phones, TV, social media—provides an inoculation against robotic thinking. In the realm of poetry, mechanized metaphor generation can lead to the inauthenticity of imitation.
Authenticity requires the heightened awareness I find by walking. For example, facing the computer screen at my desk, I attempt to write a line to a poem on a brisk wintry day: the snow is falling like powdered sugar. The innocuous effort exhibits zapped creative flow. Inauthenticity. Cliché. I’m now inflicted with agitation, which is a common layer of the cycle I experience each time I sit down at the computer screen. There’s not much room for imagination when my mind is fried by technology. At this point of creative cessation, I seek adventure, and an enriching walk will serve as firewood to fuel ingenuity.
I pace myself while walking. Not too fast. Not too slow. Finding the right rhythm establishes a sense of tranquility. Oftentimes, when writing creatively, emotion and thought do not come together on the page as swiftly as most writers would like. Nevertheless, a necessary ingredient to a successful poem is time. So, instead of sitting at my computer nibbling munchies and getting fleshy while surfing the Internet, I flee distracting machinery and take to walking. Almost instantly, I loose myself in no-mind, that elusive location where creativity resides, where metaphors appear like snowflakes midair as the inner self and the fresh outdoors unite.
Most often, I walk the woods, but sometimes I pace the high school running track or walk the downtown streets and neighborhoods of the mining-town where I live. This is the manner in which thoughts and observations build gradually into poetic imagery. Walking blends thought with action, stews experience into what will become remembrance. What’s more, it’s scientific: a new study from Stanford University shows that walking improves creativity. According to the study, researchers observed that creative levels increase as people walk, as opposed to when they sit. The study concluded, “A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking.”1 This comes as no surprise: just like the Parable of the Sower in the New Testament, poetic thoughts sprout from seeds sprinkled on the fertile forest floor. These same seeds would strangle in closed rooms of sterile technology.
Authentic writing, just like a proper walk, requires enduring awareness. I recently came across some sound advice offered by Elizabeth Berg, author of the novel Open House (Ballantine Books, 2001), that emphasizes this point:
You need to notice all the time, and then tell what you saw in a new way. As for the notion that everything has already been said, maybe it has, but life is like meatloaf: there are so many different ways to present it.2
My preferred place to notice is in the Gila National Forest, which begins just at the edge of town. There, I have dreamed and walked, cracked snow underfoot, and gazed out to the juniper billowed horizon. Swarms of similes have stirred as sunshine echoed through openings of frosty piñon pines. Ravens have croaked from shadows cast by tree trunks messages as the cold awakened my scalp.
And then I head back to the keyboard with notes scribbled in longhand. Many times it takes a series of walks before I get to this point in the game. New ways to express the snow falling flurry about in a brainstorm:
The snow drops, floating like feathery flowers falling from groves of fringe trees
The snow tumbles like stardust through the still winter night
The pellets of snow whirl in the chill breeze like unhusked grains of wheat
The snow falls like fish food sprinkled from the hands of a god
In this manner, nature brings out the best writing self I can be. What’s more, it’s an ongoing process with no end in sight. Who would shun the gift of making oneself anew poem after poem?
This afternoon, I returned to the warm house from a chilly walk under a sky hydrangea blue, sat at my work space, and, what began as falling snow, transformed into a Walk Poem of night love. Who would guess? According to The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, a Walk Poem can be about what the poet observes while walking, or it can be a poem that reflects the way a poet’s mind works during a walk, among other variations.3 When writing a poem, I always want to hear the words spoken aloud, so I read the poem again and again before it comes to fruition. Without plan, the poem then reintegrates with lived experience becoming a dream awake.
If you’re not already an enthusiast of walking for creative stimulation, you may want to give it a try. As the Taoists are fond of saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” They’re also known to insist, “Not Two.” With this in mind, I think of walking and poetry as One.
The walk in winter daylight sparked visions of love in moonlight:
Winter Walk at Nightfall
(for my husband)
I want to walk with you
bundled under snowflakes at nightfall.
I will cook hot soup—
Lentil, chicken noodle
I will brew hot tea—
Earl Grey, jasmine
whatever you desire,
pour heat into thermos to-go.
Let me walk with you awhile
out to the winter woods.
We can break for a meal
and watch the snow
tumble tumble like stardust
through the still winter night.
Let me press tender
my thirsted-for flesh
as our hearts dissolve in union.
As for me, let me see
and feel the warm life
in your lovesick breath
steaming mysterious across the air.
1. Wong, May. “Stanford study finds walking improves creativity.” Standford News (April 24, 2014): http://news.stanford.edu/2014/04/24/walking-vs-sitting-042414/ (accessed 11/1/14).
2. Berg, Elizabeth. “Good Prose Month: Elizabeth Berg On What It Takes To Be A Writer.” Biographile (January 16, 2013): http://www.signature-reads.com/2013/01/good-prose-month-elizabeth-berg-on-what-it-takes-to-become-a-writer/12113/?Ref=exsyn_corp_bio-medium (accessed 10/25/14).
3. Ron Padgett, The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms (New York: T & W Books, 2000), 200-201.
[This essay by Wendy Gist was originally published by Empty Mirror Magazine.]
Wendy Gist has had her poetry and prose featured in Amsterdam Quarterly, Burningword, Glint Literary Journal, Gravel, Grey Sparrow Journal, Juked, Poetry Pacific, The Lake (UK), Oyez Review, Soundings Review, Toad Suck Review, Yellow Medicine Review and many other fine journals. A native Arizonan, she now lives in New Mexico, where she serves as managing editor of Red Savina Review.