Whether through crowded airports or in the silence of your imagination, this is a month to travel. Time to set off with a pen
Summer time and the living is mobile. Once July arrives, many of us have hit, are about to hit, or are wondering if we can afford to hit the road. Be it a midweek break in Paris, a fortnight by the sea or three months on a J-1 visa in New York, summer is the time for travel. According to Robert Louis Stevenson, who knew a thing or two about the subject, it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive; for the next few weeks you are invited to test the hypothesis that it is better to travel in poetry than by public transport.
One of the great pleasures of any journey is the possibility of the unexpected encounter or experience. You turn a corner and suddenly the most dramatic panorama you've ever seen stretches out before you. You walk into a bar in a city you've never been in before and there they are, the lost love of your life and you think "we'll always have Paris"… Or maybe it's a bus trip on a moonlit night when suddenly a great animal wanders out onto the road, a moose perhaps– as in Elizabeth Bishop's account – delaying the journey but bringing its ineffable gift of joy to ease the way.
Of course, the encounters you have along the way will depend on the choices you make, the road you take, or the road not taken. Frost's poem is so familiar that it's easy to overlook quite how laden with paradox it is; both roads are worn "really about the same", and yet the speaker is happy to claim that picking the less worn one "made all the difference". How does he or she know? Maybe it's just the condition of journeying that we cannot know what might have happened if we had gone another way, made a different decision.
At least the travellers depicted by Bishop and Frost were paying attention to their surroundings, unlike those holidaymakers we've all met who see their trips at second hand through a viewfinder. It's a phenomenon that is neatly captured by Wendell Berry in his poem The Vacation with the observation that while the camera-wielding holidaymaker will be able to view his journey at will, he himself will "never be in it'" And that was before the advent of digital mobile technology.
Nobody could accuse the speaker in Anne Sexton's Crossing the Atlantic of not being in her voyage. She is immersed fully in every aspect of life on her floating city on a journey eastwards through both space and time, back through the generations of female ancestors who made the reverse trip before her. There's something in the energy of this poem that reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer, as memorably translated by Ezra Pound. Unlike Sexton's poem, however, The Seafarer is the ultimate expression of travel as expulsion, of the outcast who roams without choice and with no ultimate destination available to them. Here's hoping none of us ever have to endure anything like it.
Whatever Stevenson might say, most of our journeys do have destinations and we generally hope to get there eventually. Mind you, not many arrivals are at events that have the momentous consequences that attended the end point of The Journey of the Magi or as big a let-down as the unresponsive silence that greeted, or failed to greet, Walter De La Mare's traveller at what turned out to not quite mark the end of his wanderings. Reading poems like this might make you more sympathetic to Charles Tomlinson's "These days are best when one goes nowhere" in his poem Against Travel.
And so this month's Poster Poems challenge is on the theme of journeys; long or short, arduous or luxurious, focused on the going or the arriving, your traveller's tales are welcome here. We're off on a trip around the egg of the world.