A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 20 April 2012

Poetry And Walking

When my sister and only sibling, Elizabeth, died from a brain tumour at the age of 29 in August 1987, I found myself turning to poetry for succour, consolation and a deeper view of things. I called on Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth and other English Romantic poets; I visited Lorca, Levertov and RS Thomas. I also began walking more and more, and further and further. In the simple act of walking, in the natural human activity of placing one foot in front of the other, I encountered a kind of fragile peace; and the sublime scenery I often walked through seemed to provide, at least partly, a benign and numinous response to my unanswerable questions.

I kept a written log of my walking routes from April 1987 to May 2006. Looking at it again recently, I'm reminded that a few weeks after my sister's death Carmen and I stayed for a while in Porthmadog (Wales), where I climbed the little hill of Moel-y-Gest and the mountain of Cnicht, and ascended the Roman Steps from Cwm Bychan. The landscape here in Snowdonia is wild, dramatic and breathtakingly beautiful.

My mother, Joan, died in November 2004, and again I turned to poetry: this time to the poems she'd  transferred to her commonplace books in a painstaking and neat hand, or cut out from magazines with scissors and pasted into her scrapbooks; and also those chosen by WB Yeats for The Oxford Book Of Modern Verse 1892-1935. Mum had been awarded this book as a prize for 'General Proficiency' at the end of her 1937-8 year at The Municipal High School for Girls in Doncaster, Yorkshire.

Three years later I completed my first Camino, and lit candles in memory of my sister and mum at various significant stages along the Way. Here's the wonderfully crazy signpost at Manjarin in the Spanish Montes de León:

My father, Fred, died in January 2009, and almost exactly one year later I walked the Vía de la Plata. I dedicated this Camino to him. We did not have an easy relationship, but all is now more peaceable. The last words he spoke to me were: 'You know I love you, Robert'.

Dad did not appreciate the finer subtleties of poetry as such, but he did love the words to the Wesleyan hymns he played on the organ each week at the Methodist village chapel. Only the other day I was leafing through his Methodist Hymn Book and alighted on John Bunyan's Who Would True Valour See (from Pilgrim's Progress):

Who would true Valour see
Let him come hither;
One here will Constant be,
Come Wind, come Weather.
There's no Discouragement,
Shall make him once Relent,
His first avow'd Intent,
To be a Pilgrim.

(The Monk's Gate arrangement by Vaughan Williams, adapted from a traditional English melody.)

Needless to say, he also loved the words of the Bible, and of course the words of the Authorised King James Version are poetry indeed. This is the title page of one of his Bibles:

Poetry and walking have been my salvation in the most challenging of times. There are times when I feel they have actually saved my life, or kept me sane at the very least.


Why does the thin grey strand
Floating up from the forgotten
Cigarette between my fingers,
Why does it trouble me?

Ah, you will understand;
When I carried my mother downstairs,
A few times only, at the beginning
Of her soft-foot malady,

I should find, for a reprimand
To my gaiety, a few long grey hairs
On the breast of my coat; and one by one
I let them float up the dark chimney.


(Collected by WB Yeats in The Oxford Book Of Modern Verse 1892-1935.)


Sabine said...

What lovely gentle and moving tributes and memories.

Susan Scheid said...

This is so lovely. In every way.

Grizz………… said...

Lovely piece, Solitary—and an oh-so-familiar motif.

Like so many of us with a certain shift, the best panacea for our troubled spirit has proven to be the solace of words and walking through a landscape that grasps both imagination and body. Surely this curative is as ancient as mankind, and may account for those restless tribes and desert wanders who scribbled and prayed and followed their unsettled wanderlust to the back of beyond.

Where would we be without either poetry or path?

Rachel Fox said...

I've walked trouble and sadness away too. It is a great cure... and enjoyable in itself (unlike so many other cures!).

Do you feel lonely now the family you grew up in has gone? I feel that a bit at times - even though I have my lovely current family around and some of the old lot are still alive (though very far away or estranged).


Dominic Rivron said...

I think we've talked about Moel y Gest before. It's a fantastic little hill, full of good scrambling. I've lost count of how many times I've climbed it, when staying at its foot, which we do often.

I'm not sure if i can say walking has kept me sane. Hill running, perhaps.

GOAT said...

Wow, beautiful and moving post, SW. I'm not much of a verse reader, though I'm trying to make more room for it, but I really enjoyed your selections there. The Lawrence one is amazing.

Yes, walking is very healing. I think it works on so many levels, physical and psychological, spiritual and even musical. I have at least 50 songs I can call on as I walk, all "written" by me while walking. They're my internal jukebox and though I can hear every drum beat, lead break and baseline, they're never complete, and I'm still fine-tuning lyrics that I started on while walking in Japan 10 years ago...

am said...

Quite a moving post. Walking is poetry. Poetry is walking. Both can keep us connected to our best selves and to each other.

George said...

A moving tribute, Robert, not only to your sister, your mom, and your dad, but also to the poetry and walking that have sustained you through all of your losses. Very lovely, and I always enjoy getting to know you a little better. There are so many parallels here, lives following lives, words following words, footsteps following footsteps. It's just the eternal rhythm of things, I suppose, distant drumbeats that gently beckon us to continue moving forward.

Suman said...

How very poignant and beautiful. Poetry, the Romantics in particular, has often kept me sane in trying times. Off late I have been tilting towards Neruda more and more, but yes poetry it is. And nature too.

Ruth said...

This is moving, and so wonderful. I feel sunrise inside now. The ways you've combined sorrow, loss, walking, poetry and remembrance have become altars in this post, and in your life. At the end of my father's life, we too were reconciled in ways that couldn't happen when he was healthy, for whatever reason. And he loved the poetry of the King James version too, though it took me many years to come back to it myself. (My own poetry mentor Diane Wakoski rekindled a love for it.) Beauty heals, there's no doubt about it. Nature and well positions towns nestled in a valley, how they lift the spirits! And poetry gets down to the soul like nothing else, I feel. This all resonates for me. Thanks.

Gardener in the Distance said...

Thankyou, Robert, for such a sensitive post.

ksam said...

What a perfect (at least in my eyes) memorial to your family. I don't think I could think of a better way to have my family remember me when the time comes, than a poem and a really long walk! Well, besides planting a Larch tree on top of me. All the while reciting something Monty Python.

Terra said...

This is my first visit here, and I find your post to be beautiful; did you see the movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen? It is about the pilgrim walk in Spain. My husband and I give it a top rating. Ah, poetry can soothe an aching heart at times, and the Bible is what I often turn to.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for all these comments — forgive me for not replying to each one individually. This post really does seem to have struck a chord, and I'm pleased about that, as it was certainly meaningful to me, and close to my heart.

Rachel — no, I don't feel lonely without my mum, dad or sister, if I'm honest. My sister died a long time ago. And the rawness of the grief following my mother's death has softened. As for my father, he was so demanding during his last few years that there was some feeling of relief when he passed on. Am I allowed to say that? I felt a burden had been lifted somewhat, as I was the only person who regularly visited him within the family, and these visits were often very painful and difficult. They took a lot out of me.

Thanks for visiting, Terra, and welcome to my blog!

Heidrun Khokhar said...

Your words have definitely hit a spot somewhere in my soul because of that human need to make sense of loss.
I used to be very fond of the romantic poets and was lucky to be able to read the French and German poetry too.
Solitary Walker seems to be well defined in this post.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Heidrun, for your comment. I am lucky enough to be able to read French and German poetry too! Wonderful.

Laurel said...

I really enjoyed reading this, another reminder of how precious simple, unassuming gifts such as a poem or a walk can be.