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Walking with Ammons and Carson

What justification is there for comparing a poem with a walk rather than with something else? I take the walk to be the externalization of an interior seeking so that the analogy is first of all between the external and the internal.

--A. R. Ammons(1)

I know a woman over seventy who describes herself as a traveller, and not because she goes on foreign trips or takes to the open road. She has a settled background, with home, husband and family. Watching her walk, I understand. Slim, with a natural elegance, she slightly tilts, and her shoulders have a questioning look about them. On a city street she looks like she’s steering a course through a wood or field. She walks a lot.

The metaphor of journey crops up again and again. “Where are you going with this?” “What’s around the corner?” “It’s the end of the road.” But asked to pinpoint where you began a thing and ended it, you have no location except a vague internal sense of an emotional state.

I dream that my body is an open tube.
I am a container of nothing. Wind blows through.

I wake and walk. There is no resistance.
I arrive at my work. Smooth here too.

In the canteen, we divest ourselves of outdoor gear.
Our coats hang dull blue, dull maroon; the walls dull white.

If I were me I wouldn't start from here.
A start is a point. How do you get to the mark?

--Máighréad Medbh(2)

The metaphor of life as a journey doesn’t gel with me. Perhaps there’s a journey to an actual goal, like the writing of a book or the building of a house, but it seems to me that we’re more like trees. We acquire new layers of information and experience, but we retain roots of memory and identity, conscious or not, to our first, small selves.

The return journey is 
the only journey there is; 
from light and teeming space 
in search of the dark place, 

--Máighréad Medbh(3)

The walk is an activity that places you on the outside for a while. You pass and observe. It’s also a kind of communication. You relate to your environment in a way you don’t in a vehicle. It’s a way of engaging the body when your work is sedentary, of letting the body think for itself within the onward rhythm. In ‘Short Talks’, Anne Carson describes the Brontë sisters’ habit of walking around the table in the parlour “after prayers” until nearly eleven o’clock:

Miss Emily walked as long as she could, and when she died, Miss Anne & Miss Bronte took it up—and now my heart aches to hear Miss Bronte walking, walking on alone.(4)

But to nowhere. Walking as meditative exercise. I’ve walked a lot. My sister walked a lot, tilted a little like my friend in her seventies. What is that tilt? A mode of thinking, maybe, a tentativeness, a preparation for avoidance. Walking can entrance you, liberate you that way. My sister said she often lost time, didn’t remember any detail of the trip home until she arrived at her front door.

Walking also exposes you. Nowadays, we’re photographed constantly. Go out at all and forget privacy.

I travel to work and home and if anyone sees me it's a speed camera
or a far satellite mapping the road for Google.

I was engaged when young by the battle to walk past
working men and fellas at street corners. I thought then

even the granite knew I was there. Absolutely the pavement,
taking my measure by the square unit, retentive

as history. A pretty one, whose anger meant a noble battle,
won by the gesture of a tossed head. Bastard, go ogle

your damned trowel.

--Máighread Medbh(5)

I’ve only accepted the value of the ‘health walk’ in recent years. With so much purposeful walking, I couldn’t understand why someone would just go out walking for no reason. It’s clear why if you live by the sea or in a place of great natural beauty.

…the City delights the Understanding. It is made up of finites; short, sharp, mathematical lines, all calculable. It is full of varieties, of successions, of contrivances. The Country, on the contrary, offers an unbroken horizon, the monotony of an endless road, or vast uniform plains ... the eye is invited ever to the horizon and the clouds. It is the school of Reason.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson(6)

A. R. Ammons’s poem, ‘Corsons Inlet’ is a walk and a rumination:

I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning
to the sea,
then turned right along
   the surf
                         rounded a naked headland
                         and returned

   along the inlet shore:(7)

The lineation mirrors the walk, the shifts in direction, the pauses, the new perspectives as he goes. Then the internal correlative:

the walk liberating, I was released from forms,  
from the perpendiculars,
      straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds
of thought
into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends  
               of sight:

Emerson’s point. This is the smooth space of Gilles Deleuze; “bends” and “blends” are matters of light and external matter, unlike the mind’s restless reaching after fact…. But is it Emerson’s “Reason”? Surely reason must be a matter of willpowered searching, and surely that’s better achieved through the kind of intellectual activities that cities offer? Many people would say that cities are healthy for the mind. How many intellectuals have been utterly starved in rural areas? Of course, with the digital age, the distinction matters much less, unless you like the feel of a fleshmeet from time to time.

The contrast may be the thing. Many people still take to the road in what is now a kind of godless pilgrimage. The most famous is the Camino through Santiago di Compostela to Finisterre in Galicia. Anne Carson describes stages of this walk in ‘The Anthropology of Water’, the act of walking being compared to water. “Water is something you can’t hold,” she says, and “Anthropology is a science of mutual surprise.”(8) Enter the pilgrim.

The modern pilgrim is listening to herself--the movement and new encounters being a source of perspective. “I am a pilgrim (not a novelist) and the only story I have to tell is the road itself.”(9) What other story is there? Perhaps religious people and the writers of self-help manuals think differently. It seems they believe there’s an answer. Or maybe they’re also just managing the question. We must keep moving, whether it’s around a table, to and from work, around the world, or within our heads.

“To think is to voyage….” say Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari.(10) I don’t entirely agree. To think might be to walk around the inner sacrificial altar, or to tread the dark heart of the maze. Thinking, to be a voyage, must go out of the self. Walking can help. It shakes up the head and sets all those fallen pieces in swirling motion. E-motion, the movement out.

terror pervades but is not arranged, all possibilities  
of escape open: no route shut, except in  
   the sudden loss of all routes(11)

In her poem ‘frontiers’, Anamaría Crowe Serrano writes of the difficulty of understanding new experiences and new places, when all the familiar, especially language, is behind you. This walking is purposeful but also blind, the walk of the refugee:

what’s the word for reaching your dream but when you get
there it’s unrecognisable.... (12)

Writers walk. It’s usually their main form of exercise. It’s not always the walk of the outsider, though outsiders are usually visualised as in some way without a home and therefore tending to walk.

[Beckett’s work] ...speaks to a growing sense that diaspora is our original condition; that all homelands are more or less violent hallucinations.(13)

If we all arrived from somewhere, it doesn’t mean that we don’t get rooted. There are homelands; there are homes. Even nomads are at home in their family groups. Then there are the actual homeless and the psychologically unsettled. I’m the psychological, always feeling on the verge of the actual.
There is a rootlessness in the ever-walking mentality, either chosen or imposed--another reason for the tilted gait, perhaps. Even on a ‘constitutional’ we are stretching connections. But the woodiness within might remain. What else have we, who can only be a floating sort of plant.

            I will try
       to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening  
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,  
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.(14)


(1) ‘A Poem is a Walk’. Originally published in Epoch 18 (Fall 1968): 114-19. Delivered to the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh in April 1967.
(2) Unpublished, from work in progress.
(3) ‘Womb’ from Pagan to the Core, Dublin: Arlen House, 2014.
(4)  ‘On Charlotte’, Plainwater: Essays and Poetry, New York, Vintage Books, 2000, 40.
(5) Unpublished, from work in progress.
(6) Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Journals, quoted in Steven P. Schneider, A.R. Ammons and the Poetics of Widening Scope. Associated University Presses, 1994.
(7) ‘Corsons Inlet’, from The Selected Poems, Expanded Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc © 1986 by A. R. Ammons. Read the whole poem on the Poetry Foundation website:
(8) ‘Diving: Introduction to the Anthropology of Water’, Plainwater, New York, Vintage Books, 2000, 117.
(9) Anne Carson: ‘Carrión de los Condes’, ‘The Anthropology of Water’, opus ibid., 152,
(10) Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, London, New York: Continuum, 2012, 532.
(11) A. R. Ammons: opus ibid.
(12) On Words and Up Words, Bristol: Shearsman Books Ltd., 2016, p.11.
(13) ‘Over Samuel Beckett’s Dead Body’ by Steven Connor, from Beckett in Dublin, edited and introduced by S.E. Wilmer, Dublin: Lilliput, 1992, p.104.
(14) A. R. Ammons: opus ibid.


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