Tag Archives: reading while walking

Reading while walking, episode 732

Reading a book while walking is different from walking while wearing earphones. A little moment from yesterday illustrates:

I was walking the dog home from the Orange Grove markets reading the Patrick White novel that we’ll be discussing at our next Book Group meeting.

A voice from behind me called out, ‘Is that The Tree of Man?’ It was Dancer1, one of the men from the Group, behind the wheel of his car emerging from the side street I’d just crossed. ‘Where are you up to? The flood or the fire?’

‘Finished the flood,’ I called back. ‘Still waiting for the fire.’

‘I’m loving it.’

‘Me too. I was completely bowled over by the first four chapters.’

‘Yes, I kept saying to my wife, “Listen to this bit!”‘

Go on, have a conversation like that with someone listening to their iPod.

1This inaugurates a policy of giving the chaps from the Book Group noms de blog.

A neighbourhood encounter involving Emily Dickinson

When I came home on Monday evening from a long weekend away, I found a small mystery in the room where my desk lives: three poetry books in a pile on the floor. Who could have taken the selected Du Fu, the selected Emily Dickinson and the Shambala anthology of Chinese poetry from the shelves? Surely not the Art Student, who is a staunch hater of poetry (unless, she says, it was written by me)? Perhaps she was looking for something to console a sick friend. Unlikely. Then I remembered she had pulled a muscle in her back  and been in pain all Saturday, barely able to sit at her desk. The books on the floor weren’t reading material at all, but a tool for an Alexander Technique Lie-Down. Apparently they were efficacious, because by the time  I arrived the back pain had gone.

Since the Emily Dickinson book had made is way into my hands, I decided to take it for a walk the next morning. The day was brilliant, cloudless, cool and pleasantly humid.  The third poem in the book is about spring, but it chimed beautifully with my Sydney-early-winter-induced mood:

The morns are meeker than they were –
The nuts are getting brown –
The berry’s cheek is plumper –
The Rose is out of town –

The maple wears a gayer scarf –
The field – a scarlet gown –
Lest I sh’d seem old fashioned
I’ll put a trinket on!

As I strolled past a friend’s house, by this time carrying a bulky plastic bag of dog poo as well as my book, the friend happened to be in her front yard. ‘That’s charming,’ she said.

I chose to interpret her as referring to the book. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I studied Emily Dickinson at uni but I’ve hardly looked at this book since.’

‘I love her,’ said my friend.

‘Listen to this,’ I said, and read her the poem.

‘She could have been writing about today.’

And we went our ways, me with the dog, her to her garden, wearing invisible Dickinsonian trinkets

Adamson’s best of 2009

Robert Adamson, The Best Australian Poems 2009 (Black Inc 2009)

This is an excellent anthology. In fact, in the context of previous years’ round-ups, both from Black Inc and UQP, it’s a strong contender for Best of the Best. It includes a wonderful range of poetic styles and modes and subjects – incomprehensible post-modern stuff, impassioned story-telling, linguistic virtuosity, delicate lyric. There’s Clive James‘s assured iambic pentameter, Pam Brown‘s asthmatically short lines, Ali Cobby Eckermann‘s lines you might need to know didgeridoo breathing to recite adequately. In the introduction, Robert Adamson talks about his solution to the difficulty of reducing his short list to fit the space available – he persuaded Black Inc to give him more space. I’m glad he did, and that he kept commentary, analysis and explanation to a bare minimum. He does offer this gem of commentary:

People ask me, why are so many bird poems being written and published? I have a theory: we miss having poets among us who can imagine that a soul can ‘clap its hands and sing, and louder sing’, that we need to acknowledge visitations by intense psychological presences, and that birds are the closes things we have, more or less, to angels.

Perhaps that’s mainly a clue as to how to read his own poems, but it’s an interesting general thought as well.

I’m not going to try to name the poems I liked best.  My copy has far too many page-corners turned down for that.

As I was reading this anthology, my Art-Student Companion, as part of her preparation for an assignment on Australian Federation, was reading The Sentimental Nation by John Hirst, and kept regaling me with interesting bits about the major role poetry played – poetry, he says, is ‘the best guide to the ideas and ideals that inspired the movement’ for Federation, and again: ‘The nation was born in a festival of poetry.’ Well, even though poetry festivals rarely make the news pages these days, to judge by this book poems are still looking for words for what inspires and ails us as a nation and a species. But now, instead of writing bush ballads or ponderous and forgettable sonnets, they tell about Iraq, global warming, the ills of capitalism, but they tell it slant. There are any number of examples, but I’ll just mention Luke Davies’ ‘Maldon, 991 AD’ which ends:

oooooooooooo I felt an outsider
to laughter. Out there the Vikings sang,
that was more like it, something eerie
to get spooked about, distracted by:
and the world so tenderly
unveiling its final unveiling.

I was also struck by the sense of community among the poets, particularly as shown in the number of poems honouring those who have died: Dorothy Porter (‘Word‘ by Martin Harrison), but also John Forbes (‘Letter to John Forbes‘ by Laurie Duggan, Jan McKemmish (Pam Brown’s ‘Blue Glow‘), Francis Webb (‘Reading Francis Webb‘, by Philip Salom [the link is to a PDF]) and Bruce Beaver (a couple of mentions, but mainly Peter Rose’s beautiful imitation, ‘Morbid Transfers‘).

Buying this book in March felt a little bit silly, like buying hot cross buns in July, but it turns out it’s not a seasonal thing at all. It’s an anthology that I’m sure I’ll go back to.

Footnote: One of my wise younger relatives recently chided me for reading while walking: ‘It’s as bad as walking around with those things in your ears, Jonathan,’ she said (by which you can she’s not so very young). ‘You have to let the world in.’ She may be right in general. But sometimes reading while walking is a way of letting in both world and poetry. The other morning I was throwing the ball for Nessie at the bottom of the hill and noticed that the longish grass was pearled with dew so that previous walkers both human and canine had left tracks of darker green, and the rosellas wouldn’t shut about something. I realised it must have rained quietly in the night. The next words I read were these, from Sarah Day’s ‘A Dry Winter: Some Observations About Rain‘:

… an elemental transition from dry to damp.
Listen, you can hardly hear its outward breath

on the tin roof. In the morning,
grass and earth are wet and everything

but the mercuric globe in the nasturtium leaf
is translucent.

I don’t know anything about nasturtiums, but the rest could have been a condensation from my surroundings. (The whole poem is lovely, by the way.)

Added later: Tara Mokhtari on the Overland blog has a completely different view. She does identify herself as a ‘shunned poet’.

Lukewarm turkey

Schopenhauer and Richard Flanagan staged a virtual intervention and made me realise I have a problem. I don’t know about acknowledging a higher power and all that, but I’ve decided to Cut. Down. On. My. Reading. Habit.

So, I resolved, there’ll be no more reading before the sun is over the yardarm. I’ll take the dog on her morning walk bookless.

Yesterday was the first day of this desolate new regime. I left American Rust beside my bed. As I was packing the plastic bags, I caught my addictive brain thinking, ‘Maybe I could just slip the anthology of Chinese poems in as well.’ Resisting that temptation, I then had to stop my hand from picking up the Asia Literary Quarterly of its own volition, and then the Monthly. But I got out the door with no printed matter about my person, had a very pleasant walk and on my return actually managed to engage with my current writing project sufficiently to get some words on paper.

And I got to notice odd things around the suburb, like this big button squash put out to ripen in a back lane, for all the world like a pumpkin in a French village:

I still allow myself to read on the afternoon dog-walk. Yesterday we went on a 30-page excursion.

Armantrout on the trot

Rae Armantrout , Up to Speed (Wesleyan University Press 2004)

As I was reading this book on the way to the Fish Markets this morning (Christmas Eve), a friend called from where she was supervising her dog in the Harbour: ‘what are you reading?’

‘Mostly incomprehensible poetry,’ I called back. ‘But she’s just described time as

a ghostly appendage
of uncertain length.’    [from ‘In Time’]

‘Hm,’ said my friend, ‘that’s pretty nice,’ and we returned to our dogs.

There’s not a lot more I want to say, except that there are many lovely moments in these 80 pages, and a lot of stuff that I don’t get (but I don’t necessarily need to). Possibly my favourite lines, from ‘Another Sense’:

I don’t mind
I’m in hell

I can learn it
again and again.

Conversations while reading while walking

I’ve posted about these brief conversations before, and they continue to amuse and even fascinate me. How much can be communicated in the time it takes to pass a friend, neighbour or stranger in the street! The conversation en passant is an under-appreciated artform.

So here are a couple that have accumulated over the last couple of weeks.

Neighbour: (beaming) Jonathan, every time I see you you’re reading. I wish it would rub off. It’s years since I’ve read anything.
Me: It’s not always serious stuff, you know. (Though I was reading Sarah Maddison’s Black Politics, which is surely serious enough for anyone.)
A non-conversation that fits here anyhow: I actually saw someone else in the Taylor Street Park reading while walking, accompanied by a dog. We didn’t acknowledge each other, and I didn’t get close enough to see what she was reading. It had an orange cover.
This one could have happened whether I was reading or not (I was wearing my red Viva-the-Kevolution shirt – a red version of this one, not this one):

Silver-haired man outside Glebe library: I’m not talking to you! (When I took no notice, being about 20 metres away) Hey, man in the red shirt … I’m not talking to you! (As I look up from my book and acknowledge him) I’ve got ADHD and I’m disciplining myself not to talk to everyone who walks past, so I’m not talking to you.
Me: (somewhat absent-mindedly) Oh, OK, thanks. (Now more like 30 metres from him, I return to my book.)
Silver-haired man: (calling cheerfully) I’m a little disappointed in your response. It would have been better if you’d said. ‘Now I’ll never know what I’m missing out on,’ or something like that.
Me: (closing my book, turning to face him, but not retracing my steps) Of course, I’m sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.
Silver-haired man: You see how needy I am!
Me: You’ll do.

My guess is that this charming man has been convinced  by a well meaning psychiatrist / psychologist that his ‘inappropriate’ gregarious impulses constitute a disorder.

More of these conversations as they occur. I do get a lot of indulgent smiles, and I’m not including dog-psychology haiku chats

Small talk

I’ve mentioned before here that I like to read while walking around my suburb – actually, while walking round whatever suburb, or urbs, I happen to be in. One of the incidental pleasures of this practice is the micro-conversations it engenders.

The most common opening gambit is, ‘Must be a good book.’ Sometimes there’s an edge of reprimand in this, as in, ‘It would have to be a bloody good book to make me – or any normal person – read it like that.’ Other times, it’s quite benign: if Bob Thiele and George Weiss were right that friends shaking hands saying, ‘How do you do,’ are really saying ‘I love you,’ then people making this comment are really saying, ‘I notice you’re doing something unusual/making the environment slightly more interesting.’

The other common remark, though it trails a long way behind the first, is, ‘Careful you don’t walk into a post/tree/branch.’

I try to respond with something friendly and amusing, an equivalent of ‘Thank you for commenting’. My fallback is something like, ‘Have to get the reading done some time.’

A very few people scope out the book as we approach each other and make a book-specific comment: ‘Is that any good? I’ve had it beside my bed for a while.’  ‘Has he done that well?’ ‘You must be an academic, reading Heat.’

Yesterday, a friend coming up Booth Street laughed when she saw me, and said, by way of explaining her laughter: ‘You look so ancient. So untechnological.’ I had no comeback.