cartoon illustration of Burling Library with single carrel lit on first floor

Illustration by Kelsey Morse-Brown '09 From "Poetry and Walking"

Wandering, reading, writing -- these three activities are for me intimately linked. They are all ways of observing both the inner and the outer weather, of being carried away, of getting lost and returning. I started to get serious about poetry in the late '60s when I was a first-year student at Grinnell College. I vividly remember how I used to walk out into the deep Iowa night to steady myself and think about what I'd read, to go over the words and repeat the phrases to myself. I was studying the English Metaphysical poets then (Donne, Herbert) and trying to learn something from the English Romantics, who were prodigious walkers.

Some nights I ended up on the edge of town ("I have been one acquainted with the night"), other nights I'd circle back and sneak into Burling Library just before closing. The librarians would turn off the lights, but 15 minutes later the cleaning staff would come in and turn them on again. I'd just wait in the dark and then spend the night in a cubicle poring over the texts.

I had stopped in the library but now my walks continued on another plane. I walked with Wordsworth at Cambridge ("I was the Dreamer; they the dream; I roamed/Delighted through the motley spectacle") and Eliot in London ("A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many"). I walked with the holy eccentrics of English poetry, such as Traherne ("To walk is by a thought to go;/To move in spirit to and fro") and Blake ("I wander thro' each charter'd street"). I was on fire with the movement of words. In the early morning, I'd step out into the breaking day, startled by the cold Midwestern light, suddenly alone again, exhausted, exhilarated.

Originally published in The Washington Post Book World, reprinted here with permission from the author

Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2009

Edward Hirsch '72...

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