Over the past month, I engaged in a personal challenge to ride my bike each day, take at least one picture during my ride, and find a poem that somehow encapsulated the day.
Poetry has always held a special place for me, but over the years our relationship became distant. I saw it as extra, even pretentious, and my reading shifted to consist mostly of non-fiction prose.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I pledged to 30 Days of Biking this month because it reminds me to see the novelty in the familiar routes I travel in Washington, D.C. I’m not a photographer, but over the years I have enjoyed having a camera at the ready to capture moments by bike. The bicycle is a lovely muse, and the flowering city in April a spectacular backdrop.
I took scenic ways to and from work this month, as I sought additional visual variety in my rides. Knowing at least one of my rides each day would also have a poem attached to it prompted unexpected thoughts about the feelings those spaces evoked and how they mirrored or contrasted my own head space at any given moment.
There were times I would spy a calm nook in the city during a relaxed moment of riding. Other times I was mashing agitatedly around town and a spot would call to me because it was the contrast I needed.
Combing through poems was a wonderful treat. It was then when I actively contemplated how the physical environment and my disposition during a ride fit together.
This month, I thought a lot about my relationship with the city. I pondered whether spring’s vivaciousness is more illusory than transient. I mulled the limitations of language as a form of expression.
Some readers have asked about the camera I use to take photos. Most of the time, my Samsung GS5 was my device of choice. For self-portraits, I used the phone’s self-timer propped it on my makeshift helmet tripod. There’s a trick to doing it just right.
This project took a fair bit of time and energy, but it was totally enriching and worth the effort– 30 days of biking, 730 miles, 30 photos, and 30 poems. These are the final nine days of April.
Shall earth no more inspire thee,
Thou lonely dreamer now?
Since passion may not fire thee
Shall Nature cease to bow?
Thy mind is ever moving
In regions dark to thee;
Recall its useless roving—
Come back and dwell with me.
—Emily Brontë, Shall earth no more inspire thee
The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot, and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots.
The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.
—Amy Lowell, Spring Day
To one who has been long in city pent,
‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
—John Keats, To One Who Has Been Long in City Pent
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.
Here rises the fluid and attaching character,
The fluid and attaching character is the freshness and sweetness of man and woman,
(The herbs of the morning sprout no fresher and sweeter every day out of the roots of
themselves, than it sprouts fresh and sweet continually out of itself.)
Toward the fluid and attaching character exudes the sweat of the love of young and old,
From it falls distill’d the charm that mocks beauty and attainments,
Toward it heaves the shuddering longing ache of contact.
—Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
At night we will set our poems
adrift in ginger ale bottles
each with a clamshell rudder
each with a piggyback spider
waving them off by dogstar
and nothing will come from the mainland
to tell us who cares, who cares
and nothing will come of our lovelock
except as our two hearts go soft
and black as avocado pears.
—Maxine W. Kumin, Running Away Together
I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun
I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain
I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water
to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin
—Zbigniew Herbert, I Would Like to Describe (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)
My father had our yard cemented over.
He couldn’t tell a flower from a weed.
The neighbors let their backyards run to clover
and some grew dappled gardens from a seed,
but he preferred cement to rampant green.
Lushness reeked of anarchy’s profusion.
Better to tamp the wildness down, unseen,
than tolerate its careless brash intrusion.
—Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Cement Backyard
and again this morning as always
I am stopped as the world comes back
wet and beautiful I am thinking
is not even a river
is not a tree is not a green field
is not even a black ant traveling
from day to day from one
golden page to another.
—Mary Oliver, Forty Years
I just have to say, I have really enjoyed these posts. The combination of poetry and rides seems perfect to me – particularly with the beautiful spring photos. I have no doubt it required a great deal of effort, but I am appreciative of you taking the time to do this and share it here.
In regard to feeling as though poetry is pretentious, I can understand these thoughts. I often feel that way about art in general and it turns my stomach to see people walking away because there is an idea that has been fostered that there is something we are supposed to “get” or understand and if we don’t then we are somehow lesser beings.
I think the beauty of both poetry and art in all forms (I do think of poetry as art as well) is that as the reader/observer/participant, we get to take from art whatever we choose. Sometimes it’s something small; at others it can be entirely profound and/or life-changing.
It’s been quite awhile since I’ve sat down with any poetry, but this has been a great reminder to me how much I do enjoy it. So again, thank you so much for taking the time and effort to do this. Perhaps it will get me motivated to get back to something I once enjoyed greatly.
Thanks, G.E.! I was thinking yesterday that I might be the only one reading these 30 Days of Bikes and Poetry posts so really appreciate your commenting. When I was in school I had a teacher criticize my poetry for being too direct and not profound enough. I then wrote a completely abstract “profound” poem that got her seal of approval, but not my own, and after that I left poetry alone for many years. This month has been rather healing for me because I read so much poetry, and saw that there are many ways of expression through poetry. What resonates with a person is somewhat (a lot?) subjective, depending on personal style, as well as where one is in life I think.
Oh, I’ve definitely read along – and thoroughly enjoyed (and I don’t think I’m alone).
Your teacher and your experience reminds me of nearly every art class teacher I’ve had. There were the few that were outstanding, but the majority that seemed to push for something that they believed a piece needed to be were very frustrating and – well, stifling in all reality. I’m glad you’ve been able to find some healing through these posts too. We all get to benefit. 🙂
I’ve enjoyed reading these and being exposed to such a variety of poets. As G.E. alluded to, I’ve finally learned that it’s ok to feel a connection to something without saying that such and such metaphor ‘means’ X.
Thanks, Jon. It was a freeing exercise in that regard for me, too.