Philip Larkin once remarked that he would like to visit China, but only if he could come home the same day. (I could do another week here on funny and/or curmudgeonly things he said.)
He also said in his Paris Review interview that writing a poem was, for him, a way “to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.” (As coldly scientific as that sounds, he of course also wrote some of the most beautiful and moving verbal devices in 20th century English. And he did go on at least one overnight trip abroad, to Germany, or so I’ve heard.)
Having written and now recently published a book of poems about traveling in China, Iceland and Japan, I’ve often thought of Uncle Phil (as I think of him) and these remarks of his when someone asks me what my book is about, or especially why I wrote it. But to tell you what I tell people, I first have to share another quote.
Jasper Johns said that sometimes life gets so close we can’t see it anymore. Small children and the outrageously wealthy aside, who doesn’t sometimes feel like that? Work or school – or both – plus getting there and home again, taking care of kids (if you went against Uncle Phil's advice and have some yourself), cooking and cleaning and hopefully somewhere in there sleeping… It’s hard not to get caught up in the busy-ness of everyday living and feel that life – real life, the good life, whatever cool thing your friends are doing (and posting pictures of on Facebook) and you’re not – is rushing past you in a blur.
Next thing you know, you’re one of those people who say things like, “I can’t believe it’s already Wednesday” or “Where did the summer go?”
Whereas traveling in another country can have the exact opposite effect. You notice everything – or try to. Because everything is new and different and strange (mostly in a good way). For instance, going to the bathroom in Japan can be an adventure in itself: one involving high-tech toilets and a quick change of footwear. Ordering dinner in Iceland can be too: do I feel like whale pepper steak or is tonight more of a fermented shark kind of night? Should I try the puffin? Or plokkfiskur, perhaps?
Finding yourself in another country is like putting on a new pair of glasses. Everything snaps into focus. Everything seems brighter and sharper.
Which is, of course, like writing a poem – or like what it takes to write a poem. Traveling and writing poems are both about finding your way, in all the different senses of that phrase. And in both cases you have to pay attention.
I think it was Jordan Davis who once said that’s the biggest thing: you have to be present. Show up and pay attention. That’s the job, you poets – and you travelers. And notice how this thing connects to this other thing. How they are – or aren't – like the things you know back home. How this reminds you of that.
And now we’re making metaphors. And now the world just got a little smaller.
I wrote poems about being in China to create verbal devices that would enable me to go back to China, if only for a day or an hour, and only in my imagination – and so that (so my hope goes) interested readers could do the same. What I wound up with on the page is a mix of memory and imagination, of course, and so not exactly the China I set foot in some years ago.
And interestingly the best part for the poet (for this one, anyway) wasn’t that finished verbal device, but the process of building it, how the words – or the search for the right ones – kept spurring me on to remember more, imagine more, to go back there again and again.
And finally it’s worth remembering too that one of Larkin’s most beautiful poems is about a journey (again, in all the senses), albeit a domestic one. Listen to him read “The Whitsun Weddings,” which picks up steam slowly but surely, like the train the poet travels in--
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river's level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
--and then ends with the most beautiful rain.