18th March 2021
We asked PBH team member Mike Shortis to write about how poetry memorisation has gone from being something he enjoys as a creative pursuit to becoming a useful and reliable tool for physical pursuits. Here he focuses on how poetry found its way into his long-distance walking.
Mike stands in Hondarribia, Spain, moments before crossing over the Txingudi bay into France. September 2013.
I grew up in a family of people who are all mystified by words, although each in our own way. I enjoyed poems as a child inasmuch as I enjoyed and appreciated the creative problem of making words rhyme, but if it wasn’t related to animals then my attention rarely held.
The first poem I remember learning just for myself is ‘Nature’s First Green Is Gold’ by Robert Frost, and I would have been about 17. I read it in The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and I had to stop to write it down. Around the same time, a family friend happened to play me a song on the guitar that I hadn’t heard since I was 5. On hearing the lyrics, the sense of absolute recall to childhood was near-supernatural. This was when I realised that poetry and song, as well as being beautiful in their own right, are extremely effective tools for storing and recreating lived experience. I began to carry a notebook to write down poems and quotations, either for the memories they invoked or the sense of calm that came from knowing I could keep something so beautiful with me in my head at all times.
What I’d describe as an embodied use of poetry is something that I first discovered some years later, when I decided to walk along the north coast of Spain into France, from Oviedo to Lourdes.
The mental environment brought on by the physical constraints of daily walking was new to me. In the average day of walking 25-30km alone, there is very little decision-making to do. As long as you have water and follow the path, all that remains is to put one foot in front of another and repeat until sunset.
In this way the mind is oddly free from the normal state of constant decision-making, and you’re often surprised by where your attention goes when there are no decisions left to make. You may find yourself flitting between forgotten memories and impressions, such as watching hail from a classroom window as a 6 year old, or sudden revelations about the immediate natural environment. Realising that those are cork-oak leaves you’re seeing, and not holly, for example.
Often you hypnotise yourself with the rhythm of your own footsteps. The awareness of this sound is gradual, until you suddenly realise that all you’re hearing is the steady roll of your boots on the trail. Once it’s clear that your one simple goal will be realised by living and moving in meter for 5 weeks, spoken poetry suggests itself naturally as an accompaniment.
At some point on the way I picked up hiking poles. These took the weight off my back, sped up my pace and put down a layer of syncopated tapping over the rolling of bootsteps. The resulting speed and intensity of my walking trance meant that if you were a horse, sheepdog, vulture or hazel stand on the north coast of Spain in August 2013, you may well have seen me come lurching out from around a country bend, tapping away with my walking sticks in a daze and sporadically breaking out into every poem that my mind successfully dredged from the depths of memory. However this might have appeared to the bystander, it was a state of bliss to be in, and it changed my relationship to those poems and poets, as well as poetry in general.
First off, having anything at all that you can fix your focus on for a long time is extremely useful when doing repetitive physical activity. Sometimes you turn to the poem just for the joy of it, when it fits your mood or your surroundings. At other times you know you can take refuge in your poem as a mantra when your mind or body is tired; that is to say that sometimes it’s something to fill the mind when you’ve exhausted all other topics of thought, and at other times it saves you because you have 3km left as the sun’s going down and it’s the one thing that will pull you along. If I compare walking with sailing, poetry is at times the dolphin playing in your bow-wave, and at other times it’s the wind behind you.
Constant living reliance on a poem as a tool brings newfound gratitude for the toolmaker, as well as empathy for what persuaded them to create it in the first place. Constant turning over of the poem can yield new interpretations and inflections. Some days it comes out like a prayer; a call to those mysterious sources of strength that hide within ourselves, each other and the world. Some days your poem comes out like a fortune being read. Once in a while you have a day where something is gnawing at you and you’re not sure what it is until you say your poem, and by your tone and breath you realise instantly that you are tired/thirsty/annoyed and you can then solve these problems.
Mike Shortis has worked on and off for Poetry By Heart since 2013. He can normally be found studying languages, writing up his travel journals or planning his next trip.