A Poem is a Walk / A Poem is Not a Walk

Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart.  It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing.  It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals (Rebecca Solnit).[1]

In 1967 the American poet A.R. Ammons delivered a lecture to the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh entitled ‘A Poem is a Walk.’  In it, Ammons drew comparisons between walking and poetry that speak to my own interests:

As with a walk, a poem is not simply a mental activity: it has body, rhythm, feeling, sound, and mind, conscious and subconscious.  The pace at which the poet walks (and thinks), his natural breath-length, the line he pursues, whether forthright and straight or weaving and meditative… all these things and many more figure into the ‘physiology’ of the poem

A poem and a walk are both singular activities, Ammons claims, in the sense that ‘every walk is unreproducible, as is every poem.’  Each of them is something which ‘turns, one or more times, and eventually returns.’  Poem and walk involve a journey, a process, an experience, and a return to a slightly altered reality.

The temptation here is to provide an ecstatic celebration, pulling in references to a host of poems that illustrate the point that both poetry and walking enable the creation of new worlds, involve the whole person in summoning a deep and fulfilling experience that is unique, powerful, freighted with significance.  I could talk at length about Wordsworth’s writing practice, or provide a close analysis of Thomas Traherne’s famous poem on walking: ‘To walk is by a thought to go; / To move in spirit to and fro.’

But Ammons takes a different path and, I confess, I agree to follow him on it: ‘Walks are useless, so are poems.’

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I have written elsewhere about the possibilities of environmental poetry (and I’d include many walking poems in that category), thinking through what it might be for, and why those who declare that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ perhaps ought to read Auden’s poem closely before quoting him.  What makes me agree with Ammons, then?

It’s simply this: that to reduce walking—and poetry—to mere utility is not just to be reductive, but it is to misunderstand their very nature.  I shall let Ammons explain further:

A walk doesn’t mean anything, which is a way of saying that to some extent it means anything you can make it mean—and always more than you can make it mean.  Walks are meaningless.  So are poems.

A poem is not designed to produce a single meaning, reducible to a take-home message.  It is not in possession of a nugget of knowledge it is possible to summarise definitively.  Rather, it shifts, it changes as its reader does.  A poem read yesterday has different aspects today.  A poem read fifteen years ago will mean something else, something new, or something old, now.  In the same way, the paths in landscapes we inhabit and revisit are always in a state of change.  The walker’s changes rise to meet those of the path, the terrain, even the weather; or the landscape’s changes rise to meet those of the walker.  Walks ought to be meaningless, their own reason and with many meanings and possibilities along the way, curving, as the walking poet Thomas A. Clark’s poems often do

along back roads

to far dwellings

single track

with pausing places

by vetch and clover[2]


[1] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (London: Verso, 2001), p. 5.

[2] Thomas A. Clark, The Hundred Thousand Places (London: Carcanet, 2009), p. 29.

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One thought on “A Poem is a Walk / A Poem is Not a Walk

  1. A fine piece of writing, Dave, and admirably concise (to this heap of verbosity). YES – to all you say on both poetry and walking; especially the fact that neither can or should be reduced to a ‘purpose’, for ‘utility’.

    Have just now been reading Clark’s ‘The Path to the Sea’, so that you should quote him is nicely synchronous.

    Look forward to more.

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