Deploying a customised embodied poetics (after Lorde 1984; Cancienne & Snowber 2003; Peary 2018) and primarily drawing upon a two-week coast-to-coast walk across the north of England undertaken during the summer of 2019, this article is structured as a walk in 5 stages (i. Setting Out; ii. View from a Hill; iii. Drifting; iv. Back-bearing; v. Returning). It explores the effectiveness of this experiential approach for the composition of poetry. Walking can be in itself a form of creativity, an act of subversion, or deep reflection — a way of going inward as much as outward. The poem written in situ can be a form of qualia-capture for the little epiphanies of secularised pilgrimage. Sister methodologies such as the psychogeographical dérive (Debord 1954) are drawn upon, but a customised approach is forged: the way of the dériviant who transgresses borders and forms. Extending this approach, a multi-modal approach is discussed, included Twitter poetry, audio recordings, and artwork. Restricted from further long-distance walks during the Covid-19 Lockdown of Spring 2020, Nan Shepherd’s ‘deep mapping’ approach (2011) is adopted, continuing the practice-led exploration within the local universe of the Wiltshire Downs. Finally, the benefits of such an embodied praxis are suggested.
Can walking be conducive to the composition of poetry? This is what I set out to explore in this practice-based enquiry. I shall draw upon a long-distance walk across northern England undertaken during June 2019 (the Coast-to-Coast Walk/Wainwright Way), as well as my own regular walks in the Wiltshire area, and a lifetime of drawing inspiration from the landscape. I am a keen long-distance walker and trail runner and although I do not enjoy these pursuits for the purpose of producing writing, it is often the happy byproduct. I am aware that walking in pursuit of the Sublime, as an activity favoured by the Romantic poets, especially William Wordsworth (Solnit 2000; Shaw 2014a, 2014b; Gill 2020; Bate 2020), can be seen as a gendered activity, as Solnit identifies: ‘A man on the streets is only a populist, but a woman on the streets is, like a streetwalker, a seller of her sexuality.’ (2000: 176). Writer-walkers such as Robyn Davidson (1980) and Cheryl Strayed (2012) have actively resisted that, although an element of vulnerability and of societal transgression lingers for the solo female walker, and in some countries it still remains forbidden. Further, it can be perceived as privileged — the prerogative of the lone, white male of a certain class. A walker of colour may receive different treatment, as would a walker of the working classes in earlier times: until the famous mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932[i], the ‘grouse moors’ were seen as the province of the landed gentry and tenant farmers — the rural poor who knew their place; it was only with the CRoW Act of 2000[ii], that the British countryside was finally opened up. The experiences and testimonies of peace campaigner Satish Kumar (2014), late twentieth century African-American environmentalist John Francis (2008), and nineteenth century proto eco-poet John Clare (Bate 2003), are some of the exceptions that prove the rule. And so, mindful of my relatively ‘privileged’ position (although I come from a working class background) and the modest nature of my endeavour (I am not trying to compete with anyone in terms of mileage, ardour, or outcomes), I embark upon this foray. My line of enquiry is a phenomenological one.
I have written elsewhere about the kinaesthetic affect and efficacy of long-hand writing (Manwaring 2019a), but there is an overlap to be found here between the sensation of walking and that of writing — between the path and the pen and the poem-making. The line of the walk actualises the line of the poem — in the journal, on the map, on the route, the microcosm rhymes with the macrocosm: shifts of magnitude; questions of scale. The centimetre becomes the kilometre; the inch becomes the mile. The cursive, the trail-sign. The ascenders and descenders of my handwriting mirror the peaks and troughs of the day. My body is my baseline; my x-height is the place where the inner and outer meet.
This intuitive methodology, created in the fugue state of long-distance walking without any kind of conceptualising (except what I back-extrapolate here) is akin to the embodied poetics of Audre Lorde, without wishing to ‘claim’ it in any way as a tool for liberation. Nevertheless, I feel my experience echoes her erotic engagement with the world:
For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors brings us closest to that fullness. (Lorde, in Lovas and Jenkins 2007: 88)
Walking is my simple way of returning to myself, to strip away the inessential, to access thoughts and feelings often drowned out by the demands of my profession or the white noise of the world. As Lorde says: ‘I kept myself through feeling’ (1981: 714). On a long-distance walk in 2018 (Pennine Way National Trail) I struck upon the idea of reflecting each day upon a theme — to identify my core-beliefs: ‘using the visceral experience of walking the spine of England to tap into the bedrock of my belief’ (2018b). These I wrote up as mini-essays, compiled with illustrations in a self-published chapbook (2018c). I found this process immensely satisfying, but I did not want to do anything so structured in my Coast-to-Coast walk. After a busy semester of learning outcomes, grading, and performance indicators I desperately needed to do something that was not goal-driven. It would be about process, not product. If anything emerged, well, that would be serendipitous.
Ironically, I have turned this spontaneous, embodied, sensual approach into a pedagogy I term ‘wild writing’ (2016). I have also defended my approach to experiential research, or ‘method writing’ (2018a; 2020a). So, here I shall focus on the specifics of walking and composition — the walk-as-a-poem, the poem-as-a-walk. I take a cue from Paul Klee, who exhorts ‘taking a line for a walk’ (1961). Would it be too bold to suggest my entire walk, from coast-to-coast, was a kind of long-distance poem, one that echoes Richard Long’s land art (2005)? Inverting the usual route advocated by the trail’s designer, the writer-walker-illustrator, Alfred Wainwright (2017), I decided to walk from Robin Hood’s Bay, Yorkshire (its usual terminus) to St Bee’s, Cumbria (its customary starting point) — from east to west. This was ostensibly to leave the Lake District until last, but became an accidental pilgrimage (2019b), as I found myself arriving in St Bee’s on the eve of the day associated with her arrival, Midsummer Day (the church she founded there celebrates its 900th anniversary in 2020). Not only did this defamiliarise the walk (meaning on a practical level that I had to use the trail-guide back-to-front), it also meant I was ‘reading’ the land from right to left, in Oriental-fashion, a queering of the Occidental hegemony.
Along the way I switched modes between writing poetry and writing prose (alongside journaling I researched locations for a novel-in-progress, writing a chapter inspired by the landscape associated with Wordsworth), and in this fashion I felt I was attempting a modern form of haibun, as mastered by Matsuo Basho in The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1966). I passed through a worded landscape, one associated with several notable writers — the Brontës, the Wordsworths, and more recently, Simon Armitage (the UK’s poet laureate, whose birthtown Marsden sits near the southern end of the Pennine Way; when I walked that the previous year I came across a poetry trail that featured poems written by Armitage and carved into the local rock). Fellow northern poet Basil Bunting declaimed in Briggflatts: ‘Words are too light, take a chisel to write’ (1966: 115-117). Certainly the terrain I walked through — the moors, stands, stiles, cloughs, fells, tarns, rhylls, and becks — I experienced on an intensely physical level, carrying a full pack of camping gear and supplies, so when I came to write about these things they still had a tangible quality to me, felt in my aching limbs and fresh sense-memory. This iterates the approach of Cancienne and Snowber, who discuss the body as a ‘site of knowledge’: ‘We use movement methods within the educational research process to pose critical questions; to connect with the emotions of participants; to understand theoretical concepts, the self as a place of discovery…’ (2003: 237) — although I use a different vocabulary. Each day I had an itinerary, but within that were many variables depending on the weather, the conditions on the ground, the signage, and my energy levels. The first few days were undertaken in challenging conditions — into the teeth of Storm Miguel: sleeping on an exposed ridge in a micro-tent; walking for hours in soaking clothing through freezing fog. I had to rely upon my map-reading skills at several critical junctures. Taking a bearing, and triangulating between landmarks (if visible), I would strike out, sometimes having to cross boggy terrain to regain the trail. This was echoed by my poetic composition where I would often ‘transgress’ the boundary of the stanza in my free verse. I would feel my way into the poem by following the contour of my current mood, or immediate view — a repurposing of a mountaineering practice advocated by Robert Macfarlane as a way of coping with challenging circumstances, ‘contouring’:
when traversing steep or unsure ground, picking a path that holds its height. On the hill, as in life, a means of staying steady, of keeping level even when the going is rough, the world falling away to one side or the other.[iii]
This, and other experiences and strategies of long-distance walking maintained me on both my walk and in my writing. In the rest of this article I will now use the ‘found form’ of the walk itself to frame further discussion. I will draw mainly upon my Coast-to-Coast walk for this, but, as with the nature of any walk, there may be diversions. The unexpected detour, improvised route, or drift is very much part of a good walk in my experience. In this I consciously repurpose the psychogeographical ‘dérive’, which I shall discuss in detail. I shall also draw upon my recent experiences of moving through the local landscape, on both two wheels and two legs, in the section, ‘Back-bearing’, weaving in a discussion on a multi-modal approach and situatedness alongside new poems created in Spring 2020, emphasising their unfinished qualities as valid ‘snapshots’, process caught in process. In ‘Returning’ I shall discuss the techniques I have extricated from my enquiry, before concluding with a contemporary example of the continuing discourse.
1. Setting Out
I am walking across moorland, in the North Yorkshire Dales, eight days into a coast-to-coast walk, heading west from the Yorkshire coast to the Irish Sea. I’m between the small market town of Kirkby Stephen and the remote village of Shap — a long stretch, twenty miles. After days of being purely in the experience of hiking, with a full pack of camping gear, I feel something stirring. There is something in the quality of the light today — and the way it reveals the details of the limestone fells. After a week of walking on a different geology I feel suddenly at home. I sit down on a stone, pull out my notebook and begin to write…
Glint of sunlight on limestone wall,
a line of white against
the deep green —
rough edge rhyming
with the ragged fleece
of ewe and lambs
in their brand new coats.
This is high dry country
where dramas of light
and dark are played out
in silent operas
of clouds and hills.
The audience response,
the slightest sussuration,
a bleat and a peewit’s
This was to be the first of a short sequence of poems I produced on my two week coast-to-coast walk (an inversion of the popular hiking trail, also known as the ‘Wainwright Way’, which runs 192 miles from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire). I hadn’t planned to write anything particularly profound or polished — an ‘outcome’ — for this was meant to be my holiday from my writing life and from academe (where I teach creative writing). Every summer for the last few years I have undertaken a long-distance walk, often solo, as a kind of ‘detox’ from a linguistic and IT-heavy life. These walks usually come after days of intensive script-marking, by the end of which I often feel ‘word-blind’. I’m also sick to the gills of geopolitical ills, the toxicity of social media, and the meanness of modern life. However, after a few days the white noise of the world fades and I start to hear myself think. Ideas start to naturally bubble up — an artesian spring released by the removal of pressure, my mind and imagination no longer colonised by other people’s narratives, systems, demands, and dialogues. Unlike prose, which I can ‘make’ myself write sans descent of the muse — a thousand words a day, come rain or shine — I never force poetry. Although I have been writing poetry the longest out of all the forms I work in, it comes and goes as it wishes. Sometimes a year or two can pass without a new poem emerging, and that’s fine.
I know poetry is always there, waiting, like some large black cat, ready to pounce.
Perhaps because my daily life is largely prosaic, in many senses, the poetry is pushed to the sides. Yet there is something about walking — especially walking long distances in remote areas (for me) — that helps to stir this feral creature. Is it the physical rhythm of walking, embodied so viscerally? Is it the long periods of wordless silence (or peacefulness — for there are always sounds, even if it is one’s breath, heartbeat, or boot, or the wind’s whisper)? Or is it the absence of human presence, or human narrative, which compels us — meaning-making animals that we are — to fill the ‘void’ with some kind of response, to decode or decant reality?
It is probably all of these things, and undoubtedly a blend, too, of my pre-occupations, peccadilloes, and penchants. I am inspired by both landscape and writers of place, so it is not surprising if I choose to plough the same furrow. I am used to translating the world into words, a linguistic cartography. Yet it is not a literal mapping, but a process or transformation — into something other, something beyond. Every moment, every point in space and time, is charged with metaphoric meaning. I sense it as an immanence, although one that is often drowned out by the demands and din of daily life. For me it is only in the backwash of civilisation, in wilder places, the backcountry and the bush, that I can pick it up — although there are no doubt those who can tune into it in a city just as easily as I can in a forest, on a crag, or by a lake.
I carry on my way. The moment, or my sentiment, has been captured in an holographic way — better than any photograph could (unless you’re a professional photographer). In this way, I travel not only horizontally across a landscape, but vertically. These ‘soundings’ can only occur when we, in the words of supertramp WH Davies, ‘stand and stare’[iv] (or sit and wonder). The physical act of walking keeps returning us to our bodies, and to the actuality of being in a landscape, one that requires effort to move through — effort that is rewarded by a shift of view or elevation of perspective; a reciprocation that is satisfying as it returns us again and again to the ‘here and now’, to be fully present, to have arrived in time. Walking attunes us to these ancient, inchoate energies — alignments that lead into lines, footprints into pages, as we sing the Earth into being with our very becoming.
Dark is My Shadow
Dark is the shadow
that passes over the fields
Dark is the beck,
foaming like Theakstons
Dark is the peat hag,
the loam of millennia
dripping and deceptive.
And dark is my shadow
carried behind me
like a wet rucksack.
Yet all is held by the light,
which embraces each shadow
with the whole of life.
2. View from a Hill
Complementing archival research and the practical application of craft, my preferred method of research, when it comes to bringing alive the world of my characters and their settings, has always been an experiential one. I find that by visiting actual locations connected to my stories (in prose fiction projects) or having analogous experiences, I soak up atmosphere in an immersive, multi-sensory way (which no amount of text research could replicate), creating a reservoir of experiences and associations that I can draw upon in the re-creation of the setting or characters’ perceptions. And I stumble upon telling details, things I would only notice in situ, which often influence my creative decisions. This form of ‘qualia-capture’ (Lodge 2002: 8) is intrinsic to the performance of authenticity that follows, in a similar way that a method actor draws upon childhood memories, past traumas and triumphs, importing them into their performance to give it the ring of truth.
There are counter-arguments to this approach. Geoff Dyer’s excoriating deconstruction of an experiential method in his attempt to write a biography about DH Lawrence (1997) proves, at least, that it did not work for him; but that does not invalidate it as a methodology. Some writers relish field research, others prefer to do it from the comfort of their study. What matters, ultimately, is the writing. The embodied method provides me with a visceral experience to draw upon and allows me to inhabit the zone of my characters: the imported affect of this phenomenological approach helps to create an ambience of authenticity. However, the notion of ‘authenticity’ in a piece of creative writing has been increasingly problematised in recent years (Whitehead 2010; Baker 2014; Darwin & De Groot 2014).
Exhaustive research does not guarantee the ‘success’ of a literary project, as Iain Sinclair pithily articulates:
You can make as many charts as you like, plot graphs with different-coloured inks, predict movements, the arguments of ungrateful characters. You can spend years ploughing through biographies, reminiscences of tourists in search of the pastoral; libraries of geology, church histories, mythology. You can visit every site a dozen times, live on the road. It makes no difference. The first sentence on the page and the game’s up, the story goes its own way. A fly that refuses to buzz. (2001: 307)
Yet even Sinclair, the flâneur par excellence, acknowledges the efficacy of both the physical act of walking[v] and what he calls the ‘trance of writing’: ‘The trance of writing is the author's only defence against the world. He sleepwalks between assignments, between welcoming ghosts, looking out for the next prompt, the next milestone hidden in the grass.’ (2006: 362)
Murakami is a strong advocate for running and writing, although not necessarily for inspiration, but to balance out the sedentary life-style, clear the mind, and inculcate what he sees as essential qualities for the (novel) writer: focus and endurance (2006: 76-83; 96-97). For him, running is an intrinsic part of his writing practice, a way to counteract the loneliness of the long-distance writer: ‘Writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.’ (2009: 10)
Whatever other authors refute (eg Dyer 2012) or advocate in their methodology, I find that experiential research does help me. It affords me an ‘otter’s-eye view’ (Macfarlane 2005: n.p.) of the terrain of the novel I am inhabiting, as Macfarlane describes in the approach of Henry Williamson:
Williamson's research was obsessive-compulsive — writing as method acting. He returned repeatedly to the scenes of Tarka’s story as it developed. He crawled on hands and knees, squinting out sightlines, peering at close-up textures, working out what an otter's-eye view of Weest Gully or Dark Hams Wood or Horsey Marsh would be. So it is that the landscape in Tarka is always seen from a few inches’ height: water bubbles “as large as apples”, the spines of “blackened thistles”, reeds in ice like wire in clear flex. The prose of the book has little interest in panoramas — in the sweeps and long horizons which are given to eyes carried at five feet. (ibid)
As a keen walker, my experiential research includes, like Williamson’s, literally field-work. As part of my ‘way into’ the world of my novel I have walked long-distance footpaths: Hadrian's Wall (2014), West Highland Way (2015), Offa's Dyke (2016), Southern Uplands Way (2017), Pennine Way (2018) — walks exploring borders and debatable lands, and a collective distance of 836 miles. And I have discovered my enjoyment of singing in the process: while walking the West Highland Way solo I started to pick a song each day to keep me going[vi]; for the Offa's Dyke walk I created a deliberate songbook[vii]. These walks gave me an embodied sense of geography, of psychogeography — following mindfully in the footsteps of great walker-writers like Thoreau, Leigh Fermour; Solnit, Sinclair, Sebald, Macfarlane, Shepherd, et al, with plenty of time to think about borders. Outcomes include a poetry collection, Lost Border (2015); a performance at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, ‘Across the Lost Border’; a ballad and tale show; and a novel[viii].
As so often happens in a walk, the best discoveries are accidental. Like a careless walker, I had stumbled unwittingly into the debatable lands of psychogeography.
Psychogeography, in its broadest sense, has a long and fascinating tradition. Although Debord claimed and colonised the term in post-war France (first in the Letterist pamphlet Potlatch (1954), then in numerous pronouncements via the Situationist International, from 1957) there are many antecedents, influences, and developments. In two distinctive traditions, one based in London (the Robinsonade) and the other in Paris (the Flâneur), leys of affinity can be gleaned, although, as with Alfred Watkin’s 1922 notion[ix] of the ‘ley’, how much is geographical serendipity, geomantic intentionality, or the projection and pre-occupations of the viewer is hard to say. In hindsight, viewed from the hill of the here-and-now, there seems to be a parallax movement emerging autocthonically from the labyrinths of London and Paris. Psycho-geographical commentators like to cite Daniel Defoe as the ‘Godfather of Psychogeography’ (when not citing Blake, De Quincey, Baudelaire, Machen, Poe, or Stevenson), with his Journal of a Plague Year (1722). Ur-texts such as Confessions of an English Opium-eater (De Quincey 1821), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson 1886), The London Adventure (Machen 1924), and The Old Straight Track (Watkins 1925) on this side of the English Channel, and the works of Baudelaire (eg ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863)) and the Dadaists and Surrealists, Aragon’s Paris Peasant (1926), Breton’s Nadja (1928), and Soupault’s The Last Night in Paris (1928) act as reliable co-ordinates. Important outliers include Poe’s story, ‘The Man in the Crowd’ (1840), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and the writing of Heinrich von Kleist and Heinrich Heine, extending the ‘leyline’ to Boston (Poe’s birthplace if not the setting of his story), Dublin, Berlin, and Vienna.
This anti-tradition has been perpetuated via various literary dérive (Debord’s term for his psychogeographical technique of drifting and qualia capture) by an irregular cohort of free radicals, including Walter Benjamin, John Michel, Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore, Peter Ackroyd, Patrick Keiller, and others. Notably, this inshore drift has been dominated by solitary (white) males and an obsessive focus on the urban. Fortunately, a counter-tradition to all this flâneury has welled up, as articulated in the writings of Rebecca Solnit (notably Wanderlust (2000)), and Lauren Elkin’s book on the Flâneuse (2016). Other variations or subsets include: ‘schizocartography’; ‘deep topography’; ‘deep mapping’ (as brilliantly expressed by Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain, (1977)); ‘cyclogeography’; and ‘wayside inspiration’ (a term the writer Peter Alfred Please coined to describe his particular form of intimate travel-writing). I would add to this parameter space the following: the Irish literary traditions of the Echtrai (eg the voyage of St Brendan); the Immrama (eg the voyage of Máel Dúin); and the New Nature Writing, which blends travel-writing and memoir into the long tradition in works such as Waterlog (Deakin 1999), Weeds (Mabey 2012), Crow Country (Cocker 2007), Wild (Griffiths 2006); The Outrun (Liptrot 2015), The Salt Path (Winn 2018), and Edgelands (Symmons Roberts and Farley 2011). Robert Macfarlane’s oeuvre almost deserves a category of its own: in tomes like The Wild Places (2007), The Old Ways (2012), Landmarks (2015) and Underland (2019) he deep dives into language and landscape with dazzling erudition and daring, in prose that glitters like mica.
None of these later writers would claim to be psychogeographers, but there are important elements in their work — textual nutrients — which psychogeography needs if it is to continue and flourish. The thin soil of the capitol city is depleted, and the 21st century dériviant needs to look further afield for its seeds to thrive. Alternatively, they need to adopt a different methodology, such as the ‘Bibliophilic Dérive’ of English poet, Helen Moore, who has relocated to Sydney, Australia. In her recent article, ‘Creative Discoveries of Sydney as a Pre-Colonial Site’[x], she charts the edgelands of Sydney in an ecoliterate way, fully mindful of colonial legacy and indigenous rights. This deep mapping has resulted in her latest collection, Mother Country (2019). Such nuanced approaches seem increasingly necessary — for each walk is haunted by the footsteps of others, those who have been, those who are, and those yet to be. The desire paths we create are the autocthonous maps of our ethical choices: to stray or not to stray from the path; the impact we leave; the destinations we design.
It is tempting to advocate to advocate a ‘rural psychogeography’ (akin to the ludic forays into self-styled ‘mythogeography’ of Phil Smith[xi]) but I am mindful that ultimately it is just a walk, and any attempt to narrativise, or intellectualise it risks becoming a form of narcissistic self-mythologising, the literary equivalent of the ‘hero pose’ of the Romantic wanderer, a la Casper David Friedrich.
And yet the truth is I have, for many years (since the late 80s) made ‘pilgrimage’ to places of meaning to me (Glastonbury Tor, Croagh-Patrick on the west coast of Ireland), deliberately seeking out experiences for inspiration. I am drawn to places associated with myths, legends, folk tales, and writers. Narratives of place fascinate me, and how particular stories, songs, poems, scraps of folklore, or writerly associations alter our perception of a place. Knowing that a landscape, landmark, or locale inspired a certain poem, or scene from a novel, enchants it in a tangible way. And this is not mere poetic fancy, for I am not alone in experiencing this. Whole tourist economies are based upon it: Jane Austen’s Bath; the Brontë’s of Haworth; Hardy’s Wessex; Blake’s London; the Sligo of WB Yeats; and so forth. This palimpsest of the geological, geographical, historical, and literary produces further writing, thus enriching the ecosystem. The charity Common Ground has called this quality of site-specific cultural biodiversity ‘local distinctiveness’[xii]. In 2019 poet Paul Farley and academic Andrew McRae launched their ‘Places of Poetry’ initiative[xiii], an online map of the United Kingdom, to which members of the public could add poems too — matched to the exact location that inspired their musings. Before the site became ‘read only’ on 1 November 1999, hundreds of poems were added, creating a poetic map of Great Britain, a poignant snapshot at a time of national identity crisis. I have added poems to it (including ones featured in this article, and others from my peregrinations). It is very satisfying to put oneself on the map, to say ‘I was here’, albeit in a poetic, crafted way — a low impact virtual graffiti. Other initiatives focus on the hyper-local (Hidden Stories in Leicester[xiv]; Overhear Poetry in Birmingham[xv]). A more tangible legacy is the phenomenon of poetry commissioned and carved in situ, such as Simon Armitage’s Stanza Stones[xvi], which I came across walking the Pennine Way in 2018. Stanza Stones was a 2010 collaboration between imove, Ilkley Literature Festival, Simon Armitage and Pennine Prospects, which resulted in six of Simon’s poems being carved into the rock by Pip Hall and Wayne Hart on a route between Marsden and Ilkley. It is an instinct as old as humankind (and even earlier, as some cave art attests): to make one’s mark. Macfarlane meditates upon the primal power of the red hand prints in the Kollhellaren cave in his recent book, Underground, reaching out across time: ‘Dip, drag, and a fingertip draws a line through time, to a late-winter’s day in the now, and a man alone on the bay near the cave.’ (2019: 276)
On my coast-to-coast walk I finally reached the Lake District, incentivised by its dramatic Cumbrian Mountains and their association with (among others) the Wordsworths. In Grasmere — location of Dove Cottage and epicentre of the Wordsworth tourist industry — I dutifully paid homage at the graves of William and Dorothy (and other members of their family), bought some ‘world-famous’ gingerbread, and supped some micro-brewery craft beer, easing the ache of the hard miles. Having walked to Grasmere over nearly a fortnight, I cultivated a deeper appreciation of William Wordsworth — that unrivalled writer-walker (in terms of mileage, at least) — than I had previously held. Although I still do not warm to his poetry (my sympathies and interest still lie with Dorothy, and his friend Coleridge) I can respect his achievement. As with other poets in whose footsteps I have walked (Clare, Thomas, Gurney), it really brings their work alive.
Returning to the Lake District later in the summer with my partner (who does not share my evangelistic enthusiasm for long-distance walking), I visited ‘The Poet’s Walk’, a stretch of woodland in the Lancrigg estate, Easedale, where William and his sister Dorothy were fond of wandering. There is a memorial plaque at the spot where Dorothy would apparently sit, while her brother went off composing — reciting his verses out loud amid the trees. They both carved their names in the boughs and planted new trees there. Here, while my partner sat on the ‘Dorothy ‘seat’, I dutifully soaked up the ambience (and rain) in Romantic fashion, then returned to make these notes in my notebook, a not-quite-poem, channelling a little bit of the Wordsworths in a self-conscious pastiche — a performance which the place itself seemed to insist upon:
Sitting in Lancrigg Wood
on the spot where Dorothy
sate while her brother William
wandered and spate
his flowing verse,
which irrupted from his
mouth, a foliate wodwose
in church bower.
Here amid dripping grove
mighty redwood towering,
slender ash and curvaceous
beech – many boughs
sown as seeds by the siblings
in their circadian peregrinations.
A stone’s throw from Grasmere’s
a verdant solitude,
a piece of green heaven.
Fellow writer and walker Anthony Nanson has adopted this habit of composing what he self-deprecatingly calls ‘Vogon poetry’[xvii] — not with any ambition to write good poetry, but as a practical and effective way of capturing the affect of a place and its intersection with one’s own interiority. Such ‘poems’ are not being performed for anyone else — they are not written with a reader in mind, but as a record. This takes the pressure off of ‘being inspired’, and also quells the tendency to wax lyrical and have grandiloquent sentiments. Nevertheless, sometimes good work can emerge. In the next section I explore some a multi-modal approach in my ‘local universe’.
An embodied approach to my poetry has been a methodological through-line since my first forays into the ‘field’ in the early 90s (Remembrance Days, my first privately-published collection from 1991, featured a cycle of seasonal poems inspired by the changing landscape). Working and living in the urbanised East Midlands city of Leicester for a year (2019) I found it harder to access this zone, because it was harder to access the countryside — of course I could have responded to the urban aesthetic, but I find that tends to generate prose (2016). However, by the end of that year I had moved to rural Wiltshire, and throughout Spring 2020 I have been engaged in the first stages of a long-term ‘deep mapping’ of the area on my doorstep, the ancient downland around the World Heritage Site of Avebury. In the white heat of term, the first iterations of this were my daily Twitter poems, often inspired by my early morning motorbike commutes to my new teaching job in Winchester. These I called #DailyAwen from the Welsh feminine noun for ‘inspiration’. Here is a selection:
The day is written in chalk and charcoal
upon the rough quire of the Downs.
It is as though the world has been remade
in light, and the fathomless
darkness was only a bad dream.
(Twitter, 18 January, 2020)
The sky revealed itself
at first light,
a clean blue slate,
the sun breaching
the Cotswold hills
like a forgotten god.
Hands of trees
raised in silent
The song of morning
waiting to be sung.
(Twitter, 29 January, 2020)
After a sunset
of peach apocalypse
a Rackham of trees stencilled
against the skyline,
gloved night closed shut
the book of day.
The slim moon smiled,
and Venus winked invitingly,
drawing me down
the shadow strangled road,
back to the embrace of home.
(Twitter, 30 January 2020)
The flames leap
like the shout of the morning sun
across the ghosted downs.
Days of burning fingers,
vision narrowed to
a tunnel of light —
riding the thin road
between wolf dark
and hound dawn.
(Twitter, 7 February, 2020)
The kestrel flew backwards,
shoved by the wind,
an invisible bouncer
with fists of ice.
Roaring, I ran into it,
determined to push through.
This was not a fight
I was going to win,
sliding in mud, the fields
like soaking towels
after weeks of rain.
But I had to try.
(Twitter, 29 February, 2020)
The morning was a femme fatale,
cruel laugh like ice cracking,
shooting glare of freezing fire,
frigid blast of callous brush offs,
the cold shoulder.
(Twitter, March 6, 2020)
Restricted by 280 characters (&/or the brief window of time in which they were written) these Twitter poems are raw first drafts written ‘on the hoof’, often thawing out in a café after a freezing bike ride. They are not meant to be any more than what they are — snapshots of time, of sensation — and yet their compression and brevity effectively capture the qualia, while simultaneously maintaining my daily writing practice in the midst of a busy term. If I am unable to do anything else all day I have at least done one piece of creative writing, and ‘walked my talk’ in terms of exhorting the importance of a regular writing practice.
My commutes were abruptly terminated when ‘lockdown’ commenced in the UK on 23 March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Beyond the immediate concerns for the well-being of loved ones, and easing the pressure on emergency services and health care professionals, this unprecedented restriction to daily life created not only a once-in-a-lifetime paradigm shift — a deconstruction of the status quo, and defamiliarisation of the everyday — but also a creative window of opportunity. Unable to go anywhere on the motorbike beyond essential trips for groceries, I made the most of exploring my ‘local universe’ even further.
Government lockdown restrictions allowed citizens to leave their house once a day for exercise.[xviii] I was fortunate to be able to walk for miles from my doorstep across the open Downs without seeing a soul, so I stretched this restriction to its limit, undertaking a day-long walk once a week (notebook and sketchbook at hand), which often yielded several new poems. And thus my ‘deep mapping’ project continues. I have in mind a planned collection of these site specific poems, accompanied by sketches. My hope is that it would encourage readers to become walkers, visit the locations inspired by the poems, and even read them in situ, completing the circle. Such reciprocation would close the circuit, the genius loci that inspired me hopefully facilitating a shift of perception in the listener/reader, an act of focalisation, of topographical awareness.
Up on the Downs
The sky holds you
in its bright blue bowl
— stops you falling into
The sharp Spring light
makes you squint,
but it scrubs clean your soul.
The skylark threads the air
with ribbons of song.
The wind at your back
is carded by thorns.
Ragged dags of cloud snag
in the corner of your eye
like dark thoughts of a
land locked down —
yet here you are free,
no drone shames you home.
As I hope these examples show, writing ‘on the hoof’ can be multi-modal, as Barnard advocates: ‘For creative writers, whether established or aspiring, the task of embracing multimodality — its challenges and opportunities — is key today.’ (2019: 2). My field-notes have taken the form of handwritten journal entries, Twitter poems typed straight into my smart-phone, sketches, and audio recordings done in situ. All are snapshots, nothing more — their ephemeral mutability resists the closure of a final aesthetic form. A collection, podcast, or performance may emerge, but that creative ‘second wave’ is not the main motivator. If it occurs, then that will be a satisfying by-product, but it is certainly not the modus operandi on the ground. It is a positive feedback loop of engaging in one’s practice, being somewhere inspiring, with benefits to my general mental health and well-being, and a way of savouring my walks as they are happening. They are first and foremost for myself; the notion of a readership or audience is remote, both physically, and conceptually. If there is a ‘performance’ it is as a self-interrogation into the authentic moment, the authentic self — if those are possible to glean. What do I feel in this moment? What do I believe? To claim they are practice-based ontological enquiries risks a grandiosity, which does not feel present in the humble moment of their conception and composition. At that precise point nothing else exists.
In orienteering it is possible to work out one’s location by taking three bearings and from these triangulating one’s position. Here, these have been walking, multimodality, and and embodied poetics; between the three of them I feel I have identified my ‘place’ as a writer — where I stand. And now it is time to return home.
Mindfulness; timelessness; situatedness; an avoidance of a future-driven rhetoric; self-knowledge through reflexive practice — the embodied epistemic I loosely appropriate for my soundings echoes the metacognitive practice advocated by Peary (2018). And yet, however worthwhile these practices are, there is always a risk one is left empty-handed. This is the ontological slippage into past-mind or future-mind (as opposed to the ‘now-mind’) which often sabotages fledgling writing (ibid: 13), but the rhetoric of the academic article dictates that some kind of conclusion is required. What seems profound in the field — a whole body epiphany resulting from perhaps hours of effort — can appear less impressive out of context. The gleaming pebble picked up on the walk becomes a dull rock by the time you get it home; the feather, the shell, the tine, the hard-won truth — mere bric-a-brac for the nature table. Yet here is an attempt to share some ‘gleanings’, in terms of the key benefits of walking as a method of poetic composition.
Firstly, the telling details: these are the micro-details it is only possible to discover by going to a place and having an experience ‘on the ground’, spending some time in situ, and adjusting one’s perceptions to a short- or macro-focus. I have started to record these in a series of tweets entitled #4ThingstobeThankfulFor (21/04/2020: ‘lichen, stream, catkin, hedge’; 20/04/2020: ‘gorse, chalk, blossom, rock’). This kind of qualia-capture provides essential texture for writing, either on the hoof, or back at the hearth.
Next, serendipity: the chance discoveries that enrich any walk; things found by getting a little lost, by straying and drifting, by following one’s curiosity rather than an itinerary. This I explore in more detail elsewhere:
You achieve a kind of Zen-like state — your mind in your feet, often not thinking of anything in particular, just ‘being,’ fully present in the moment. And then, miles from anywhere, and deep inside/outside yourself, the little epiphanies arise; moments of gnosis when the negative space around you becomes a presence. An intense peace fills you, and the silence speaks. (Manwaring 2018c)
And, moving on, rhythm: the visceral, embodied soundtrack of the walk, which becomes encoded in any poem produced — a natural metre. This musicality irrupts naturally, I have found, into song. I first discovered the efficacy (and joy) of singing in the wild while walking the West Highland Way in 2014. To express my sublime delight at the landscape, as well as keeping me going on the long miles, I found myself singing classic Scottish ballads. I describe this in more detail elsewhere too (2015).
Then comes the epiphany: this is the Wordsworthian ‘Daffodil Moment’, when something breaks through. It need not be Earth-shattering (best to avoid the egotistical sublime) but perhaps a quiet personal insight, something which may have little significance beyond the self, but anchors the poem, providing its gravity or lift. This generally occurs during the writing of the poem itself; the ‘revealing of the light’ occurs on the page, even if — especially if — you begin writing in darkness, in Keatsian negative capability (1817).
Then there is structure: each walk has a ‘found structure’, its own dramatic arc — a rising action, a climax, and a quick (or not so quick) tail off. This becomes embodied in the walker as a kind of muscle memory; you carry this sense of shape with you all day, you experience it directly, and even carry it to bed. It may be the sweat of the climb to the summit, the burn in the calves during the long, careful descent. And, after a good night’s sleep, you do it all again the next day. As Wainwright says: ‘You were made to soar, to crash to earth, then to rise and soar again.’ [xix]
Next, there are field-recordings in notebooks, journals, phones, cameras. Even if one returns without a poem, one has ‘harvested’ prima material which can be used later on. Nothing is wasted. More than once I have recorded the sound of wind on a hillside punctuated by the lonely cry of a curlew, just to remember the ambience of a particular moorland summit, the intoxicating sense of spaciousness.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly: head-space. Paradoxical as it may seem, a writer’s walk can provide a much needed break from writing, from the linguistic and the digital. One returns to the mesh-scape of the world refreshed, as in the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku [xx]. This, more than anything, can help the poetry to happen. The removal of a plug in the almost ubiquitous strata of professional and societal expectations and pressure allows the poetry to flow — artesian wells of inspiration that ‘spontaneously’ seem to break through. One has tapped once more into the source, reconnected with one’s modus vivendi, and the effect can feel euphoric.
I began by asking ‘Can walking be conducive to the composition of poetry?’ I feel I have indubitably answered this for myself, having found that a protracted ‘dry spell’ (when I go for several months without writing any poetry) is broken by the intense bursts that often accompanies my long walks. Through the protracted rhythm of hiking, the qualia of the moved-through landscape, and the wordless peacefulness of wilderness (and the deeper listening that facilitates) the waters start to flow once more. The poet can imbibe that aqua vitae at source.
The challenge is bringing it back in a portable, robust form.
At best, the poet is a smuggler of life’s contraband — the good stuff, which work, domestic demands, the white noise of the media, geopolitical turbulence and global crises often filters out. If successful, the poet returns with something from over the border, or back from the mountain, infused with an intense hit of experience, emotion and insight, creating an instauration of language’s potency and life’s meaning. Perhaps a better analogy can be found in the synonym for a poet in Scottish: ‘Makar’, a calque of the Ancient Greek ποιητής (poiētēs) ‘maker; poet’. As with the Anglo-Saxon ‘scop’, there is a sense of such a person being a ‘shaper of words’. Walking as a poesis for poetic composition physically provides the shape that can give birth to the words, as well as offering the found texture, structure, rhythm, and flash of epiphany. One may return with a full notebook, a full heart, a clear head, sense memory, or just sore feet, aching limbs, and a healthy appetite, but the process is valid, whatever the outcome.
It would appear there is a general consensus of the efficacy of walking as a valid methodology in the composition of poetry. In a recent planned symposium at the British Library on ‘Wordsworth: Walking, Poetry and Place’, marking the 250th anniversary of Wordsworth’s birth, ‘scholars, poets, activists and wanderers’ including the poet Ruth Padel sought to ‘explore the simple act of walking as a stimulant for creativity and a way to forge profound connections to nature.’ It is sadly ironic that this discussion on movement and verse, scheduled for 14 April, 2020, was postponed due to the UK government’s lockdown restrictions. But as our own freedom of movement is (rightly) restricted we can take vicarious solace in the power of poetry to ‘move us’. First World War poet Ivor Gurney, traumatised by his experiences, found consolation in the Ordnance Survey maps of Edward Thomas, brought to him in his sanatorium by Thomas’s widow, Helen (a gesture movingly related in prose[xxi], play[xxii], and song[xxiii]). Perhaps poems offer maps of journeys both inner and outer. They are born in movement and can transport us as we move across their lines.
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[iii] Macfarlane, R 2020 ‘Word of the Day’, Twitter, @RobGMacfarlane, 5 April
[v] ‘I do a walk around here every morning before I start. It's opening up your system to the world, making the skin porous, letting all the impressions pour through and charging circuits to be able to write. And the burning of neural pathways is when you've established a set of pathways in the head. To go somewhere new is to feel the brain is being remapped, in an interesting way. And you hope that by doing that, a new form of writing might emerge.’ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/01/iain-sinclair-interview (accessed 23 March 2018)
[vi] I wrote an account, ‘Let the Mountain Sing its Own Song’, for The London Magazine, 2015, at http://thesecretcommonwealth.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Let-the-Mountain-Sing-its-Own-Song-by-Kevan-Manwaring.pdf (accessed 20 May 2020)
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[xviii] ‘The government’s priority is to save lives and the best way to protect yourself and others from illness is to stay at home. However, exercise is still important for people’s physical and mental wellbeing, so the government has said people can leave their homes for exercise once a day.’ https://www.gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-guidance-on-access-to-green-spaces (accessed 20 April 2020)
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