Tracking the Walking Poets


So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance—
and changes us, even if we do not reach it…

                                                                                                                                          —Rilke, “A Walk”

I cannot be the only child who was first exposed to “devotional poetry” through the ever-famous work “Footprints in the Sand”. I saw it mostly on the walls of friends or neighbors—in embroidered prints with sand and water and sky sewn in around the verses to set the scene of a dreamed of beach.

While I was never as enamored of it as everyone else seemed to be, I did accept its sentiment of spiritual comfort, then. The allegory of a walk made sense to a child raised on Bible stories and fairy tales of adventurous wanderings and who had walked barefoot by the water on many summer holidays. And there was of course such peaceable assurance in that ending line, of a Lord who lifts and says: “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

“Footprints” is not a work I connect with now. Over the years my definition of poetry has changed, and with it my understanding of how it intersects with faith. The classic devotional poems of George Herbert or John Donne are now stitched into my soul—as are the beautiful ponderings of modern-day masters such as like Christian Wiman and Mary Oliver.

And while it may sound silly to some—and even snobbish—to compare “Footprints” with such works, I think it is fair to say this: I do not see anything of real walking in this “poem.” This is part of why it leaves my particular spiritual imagination wanting more. There are no concrete images—no sensory details to that set the shore or sea alight. We only know it is about a beach walk because we are told so.

While I do not write poetry, I have always had a special love for poetry about walking. So how can I not look with some disappointment on such a work?

I also see reading poetry as (to borrow an Antler phrase) a devotional practice for spiritual formation. Like poet Peggy Rosenthal, I believe that the very act of reading poetry is very much like taking a walk—that “its rhythms, its sound-echoes, its line-breaks and stanza-breaks, all conspire to give us pause.” Both walking and poetry are, to me, a kind of prayer.

As ironic as it may sound, I confess that I often feel more…spiritually awakened by walking poems in which God himself is not directly present—not mentioned by name or presented as a ‘speaker.’

I think of Raymond Carver sea-gazing among rocks and gulls, in “This Morning,” which begins: “I dressed and went / for a walk — determined not to return / until I took in what Nature had to offer.”

Carver’s poem lets us into a walking moment—the tension between “what he was seeing” and the inscape of his “wandering thoughts.”  Of nature he says:

For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong — duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.

Carver dares to expose the details of the weight he carries, while also acknowledging the paradox of seeing one’s inner word more clearly through the immediate physical world. He takes with him “the stuff [he] lives with every day” as he apprehends nature’s beauty.

I have walked this way—in between those realities. Sometimes it is while I am praying and intentionally “devoting”, but sometimes God is there unaddressed, as I move and ponder in nature’s bare presence.

Similarly, “Fathers and Sons” by Patrick Lane features a poet walking with heavy memories and hard emotions—regret, shame, grief apparently evoked by recalling his dead father. It begins:

I will walk across the long slow grass
where the desert sun waits among the stones
and reach down into the heavy earth
and lift your body back into the day.

Lane keeps this patient, tender pace throughout the poem, as his memories and desires play out against the landscape. In near-psalmic language he describes “speaking love into [his Father’s] flesh” and “bless[ing] this man who died”.  As he treks across the hills and stones he imagines taking his father’s hands, palm to palm, and lifting them, saying “this is praise/this is the holding that is father and son.”

Such lines bring to my mind  the suffering Christ—the weight of what he carried for us, but also the good,  heavy work of lifting his love, praise, and blessing into our days.

Upstate New York poet Daniel Bowman Jr. is the newest walking poet on my readerly path. Almost every poem in his collection A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country is a pilgrimage across a dreamed or remembered landscape—from fog-blackened back fields to roads beside houses with open windows. His paths mingle the commonplace with the ethereal and the spiritual.

For me, his poems are haunting testaments to the intersection of the personal with the communal—the everyday with the eternal. Take this verse, from “The Sticking” :

Walking alone
through the village of my birth
makes everything
stick to my feet.
Soon I’ve got Blessed Sacrament
on my right heel,
basket of blue fish flopping
eternal, a young confessor
falling, clinging
to the scarlet curtain.

This small survey* of eloquent, walking poets urges me to move—to be always open to the particularities of pain and of beauty.

Such poetry can prime us to clearly see Christ in others—and to acknowledge his working in our own lives more honestly. It also expands our understanding of the term “spiritual walk”; I trust the Spirit to move through all moments in my life, not just the times of intentional devotion, but the small scenes, too—including my encounters with those on different religious peripheries or with different histories. All are occasions for transformation—gifts from a Father who intimately accompanies his children in this present life as he prepares us for the life to come.


 *A P.S. that this Canadian poetry fan cannot resist: Lorna Crozier’s “If a Poem Could Walk” is another wonderful walking poem—a playful exploration of poetry’s “tame and wild” way of “walking.”

(First published over at antler — I encourage you to check out the rest of their wonderful site.)

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