Poetry & Thoreau

When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,–that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. This is always exhilarating and sublime.
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be a poet – that is, to see things as a poet would, and derive some kind of meaning from those things. I’m being purposefully broad here, because since I’ve just recently started the writing program and just recently begun seriously considering what it would mean to take writing as a career choice, I’m trying to figure out what I think about all this.

Still don’t know. But by some magic of scheduling, my classes have all been intersecting and shedding light on each other in fascinating ways. I’m taking a class on Thoreau (complete with cabin building) where we’re reading Walden, and some parts of Thoreau’s philosophy jump out to me as pertaining particularly well to our class, and to a view of the world that promotes thinking poetically and noticing the fine details that make up a poem. “Thinking like a poet” might sound cliché or pretentious, but I do think it takes a particular kind of thinking about certain things in order to make them into a poem – a particular kind of eye.

One of the bigger ideas in Walden is the necessity for us to simplify our lives – to stop wasting life on menial labors (like paying rent, reading every bit of news) and start living a richer life, with more attention to the details (insert Thoreau’s lyrical descriptions of the air in the morning, the virtues of cutting down a tree). Essentially, to stop rushing – to take the time to have time to be. When this happens, he says, we can appreciate true reality, in all its meanness and its beauty. We perceive reality, instead of all the frivolous luxuries surrounding reality.

So what does this have to do with poetry? Thoreau’s ideas remind me that sometimes work isn’t all there is to life – that elements that sometimes end up in a poem starts with taking the time to slow down and pay attention. I think this is something we all do naturally as writers, paying attention to the way a person’s hair falls on the bed, or the paying attention to the feeling a certain word or a line break can involve, but Thoreau puts it in a wider view: what we do in our poetry we can do in our lives. To me that’s pretty liberating – slowing down and taking time to notice will help me have the poet’s eye that I’m craving, and writing poetry can also help me slow down – like a kind of meditation.

2 Replies to “Poetry & Thoreau”

  1. I love this idea to slow down & find the image! I find myself doing this especially when I go on runs & I am able to hone in & focus on what I am experiencing.

    But I also have to play devil’s advocate & say that on the other hand, sometimes a poem comes out of necessity to say something–like you can’t not talk about hair soft falling. One of my issues with Thoreau is his inability to recognize his privilege in being able to say “Fuck it! I’m building a cabin in the woods!” What other poems do we write when the idea or image takes over & infects–& then we don’t have the privilege to look at what we please; & then we don’t have the privilege to slow down & take our time.

  2. I do know what you’re saying about the necessity to say something – sometimes a poem just comes through and you can’t control what it wants to slow down and focus on. About Thoreau though, he was privileged, but certainly not rich – he was privileged in the freedom he allowed himself to take in the treatment of his life as an experiment. And even then it only took him about $28 ($700 today, if my googling is correct). If anything, his cabin experiment might fall under that necessity to say something and not having the privilege to stop – Thoreau built his cabin because he had something to say to the world.

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