The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page
- St Augustine
The sole cause of mans unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room
Travel is a fetish
- Lindy Barbour
The imagination lives by its contradictions
- Stanley Kunitz
O poesia poesia poesia
Sorgi, Sorgi, sorgi
Su dalla febbre elettrica del selciato notturno
- Dino Campana, The Violent Sounds of Night, Orphic Songs,
The soul travels further than the body
- Walt Whitman
Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
To imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
About just sitting quietly in ones room
Questions of Travel Elizabeth Bishop
Do I deserve this? I suppose I must.
I wouldnt be here otherwise. Was there
A moment when I actually chose this?
I dont remember, but there must have been
Whats wrong about self-pity, anyway?
Crusoe in England Elizabeth Bishop
…should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be
Questions of Travel Elizabeth Bishop
Introduction to Dreaming Tigers
This morning, nearing the end of six months of travel, I looked through my journal and counted sixty poems. I found that writing poems and reading poetry the best emotional outlet for the experiences I encountered travelling through Australia, New Zealand and south-east Asia. I had a significant bout of depression at a mid-way point in my journey, precipitated by a bout of bronchitis and a severe allergic reaction to bed bug bites I contracted from a grubby hotel room in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpar. Poetry was my anchor point and shelter at this time. The month I was ill (in a downbeat Homestay in Chiang Mai in north Thailand) yielded the largest number of poems. I only had an hour or two a day between long, feverish sleeps but, in a kind of trance-like state, I wrote every day. Was this a coping mechanism? A discipline to centre myself? Or evidence that creativity flows more freely out of periods of suffering?
Perhaps surprisingly, poems about travel are outnumbered by poems about notions of home. 'The Return', for example, written on a Bali beach, is about a visit I made to Ireland the year before. 'Skerryvore Lighthouse' (on Tiree, Inner Hebrides), which I'd made a pilgrimage to see the previous summer, was written in New Zealand, as was a poem conceived in a hot springs resort in Waiwera about the American actor Glenn Ford, as was a poem on the theme of The Ghost in Hamlet in Nelson, South Island. Less than ten poems are [objectively] about travel; the first written after visiting Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia; the last, 'The Kingdom of Travel', written a few days ago here at Tawan-inn, a week before I am due to fly home. A home that I was, perhaps through travelling, running from?
I was apprehensive of travelling on my own and sceptical of the “you will have a great time” platitude of well-wishers, knowing the reality would be more complex and challenging (for someone like me, at least). I'd read The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton in which his traveller-self suffers as much on holiday, or travelling, as at home. The Art of Travel a counter to the exotic travel theories suggested by the travel poems of, say, Robert Louis Stevenson, or the fantasy suggested by the front covers of glossy travel magazines. De Botton's holiday to Barbados a chance for him to contrast the archetypal holiday brochure images of the Caribbean (and the dreamy anticipation of travel) with the reality of the traveller who develops a sore throat, a headache, has work-related anxieties (about home), and realises he had “inadvertently brought myself with me to the island”. Could an unhappy traveller's poem about depression, say, composed while staying in a five star resort in Barbados be considered a travel poem? Does one have to travel at all to write a travel poem?
Edna St Vincent Millay thinks not. Surfing the internet before breakfast at Tawan-inn this morning, I chanced upon her poem 'Travel' (same title as a Robert Louis Stevenson poem). Using the metaphor of a train (like W.H. Auden's 'Night Mail') Millay's 'Travel' is a kind of anti-travel poem or, rather, a hymn to the delights of staying at home. She writes that “The railroad track is miles away” and “There isn't a train goes by all day”. Unlike Auden's 'Night Mail', in Millay's poem we learn that “All night there isn't a train goes by”; yet, Millay can hear a train's “whistle shrieking” and see its “red cinders in the sky” and hear its “engine steaming”. However, travel is ultimately elsewhere. The final stanza deserves to be quoted in full.
My heart is warm with friends I make, And better friends I'll not be knowing; Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take, No matter where it's going.
Millay satisfied that her “Heart is warm with the friends I make” and, perhaps, a belief in the travels we undertake in sleep, the poet content that “The night is still for sleep and dreaming”.
Charles Tomlinson' s ironic 'Against Travel' goes further than Millay in reassessing what we mean by travel at home. Like Millay's 'Travel', the narrator in 'Against Travel' is aware that travel is elsewhere and, like the train's engine and whistle in Millay's poem, it is within hearing distance, only this time travel is depicted by an aeroplane.
/Then the window pane
With a tremor of glass acknowledges
The departing boom of an aeroplane.
Although starting the poem with an emphatic domestic statement “These days are best when one goes nowhere” − the poem, like Millay's, is not without movement and never static; furniture creaks and window panes are “Brushed by the half rhymes of activities”; the house described “As a reservoir of quiet change”. Millay and Tomlinson lead us to think of travel as another kind of journey, a journey of emotional or spiritual intensity and proportions and not (merely?) a journey to Brussels with a camera slung over one's shoulder. (Apologies, in advance, to Brussels… I havent even been there.)
I took many train journeys on my travels: the Overlanders from Melbourne to Adelaide and Auckland to Wellington, trains from Yogyakarta to Jakarta and Bangkok to Non Khai; journeys that seemed to embody both the physical movement of travel and the opportunity for travel dreams. I thought of W.H. Auden's 'Night Mail', a poem written in a style and rhythm that echoes the movement of a train, in this case from London to Glasgow
This is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order
In Auden's poem, lines and phrases such as: “overseas to the Hebrides”, “holiday snaps” and “Letters to Scotland from the south of France” create a sense of holiday and adventure even though the poem is [primarily] concerned with the Mail's journey and the recipients of the Mail (depicted as asleep and dreaming) and the people and landscape through which the train passes. That we travel in dreams intimated in this section
Thousands are still asleep, Dreaming of terrifying monsters Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston's or Crawford's: Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh, Asleep in granite Aberdeen, They continue their dreams,
The poem was written to accompany a 22-minute documentary produced by the General Post Office Film Unit in 1936, and the images of the route the train takes add to the sense of the poems journey. But is it a travel poem?
In his poem 'Travel' Robert Louis Stevenson suggests travel is more akin to exotic adventure abroad?
I should like to rise and go Where the golden apples grow;-- Where below another sky Parrot islands anchored lie, And, watched by cockatoos and goats, Lonely Crusoes building boats;--
Stevenson conceives of travel as a kind of Around The World in Eighty Days experience, his poem giving us mosques and minarets, the Great Wall of China, “knotty crocodiles” and “red flamingos”, with the narrator yearning toar
Where in jungles near and far, Man-devouring tigers are
Stevenson realised some of his travel wish-fulfillments (Travels with my Donkey and Island Voyage), even spending the last year of his life, living (and ultimately dying) in Western Samoa. His depiction of travel may well meet most readers expectations of what travel (and travel poetry) is, but his poem has an element of fantasy and the fantastical about it, which does not account for the day to day challenges of travelling, which seemed prevalent in my own experience and which, I believe, is the status quo.
There are many poets who wrote poems on their travels; Shelley and Byron, for example, or Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell in Moon Country, (shadowing another journey made by Louis MacNeice and W.H. Auden - to Iceland in the 1930s). I wondered if the work of ex-patriot poets would qualify as travel poetry; Lorca's poems about Harlem in Poet in New York and Elizabeth Bishop's poems from Brazil. I thought about poets in exile, within and away from their native country, and whether their poems could be treated as travel poems. Wondered if diplomat-poets, like Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda, who were part of the ambassadorial service abroad for their respective countries, Mexico and Chile, could be deemed travel poets, and whether itinerant vagabond poets, the town -to-town soothsayers, say, New Zealands Sam Hunt, and bohemian poets like Charles Bukowski and Walt Whitman could be similarly defined. I thought of poets who wrote about life-changing spiritual journeys; Langston Hughes, say, in 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers' and Walt Whitman (again) in his 'Song of the Open Road' to search for a broader understanding of what travel poetry is. I thought of the poets who travelled as literary-pilgrims: Wordsworth, Petrarch, Ovid, Germaine Nouveau, Anne Bradstreet, Ken Smith, Dino Campana…
At breakfast yesterday, sitting under the faux-cloisters of Tawan-inn (for the last two weeks here, with the occasional day-trip to the island of Koh Samet, and the odd round of golf at Auke's club, (the Dutch hotelier here) it has felt more like a much-needed retreat than a travel experience). I conceived six components travel poetry must incorporate.
Variety (of experience)
(being) Abroad excludes the travels people make within their own countries, because to be in a country where the language and culture is not ones own leads more readily to the notion of solitariness, variety of experience and suffering and transformation. Variety of experience relates both to the range of adventures and the good times and the bad; the bad times, often occurring at the low-budget end of the travel experience, often involving ill-health or emotional sadness, a sense of struggle and suffering without which there can be no transformation.
Langston Hughes and his poem 'The Negro Sings of Rivers' exemplifies. Hughes wrote this poem having travelled from Missouri to Mexico to visit his father who was himself in self-exile. (Hughes also travelled around Europe and West Africa.) His poem is short enough to be quoted in full, the invocation of a wider notion of travel in his poem with references to Africa pervades, although his father is not named (explicitly).
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
The (being) Abroad factor would exclude poets like Osip Mandelshtam, exiled within his own country under the Stalinist regime, even though it could be argued he was writing from an alien place, but include Joseph Brodsky, exiled in America, and include Lorca with his Poet in New York. Brodsky and Lorca would be excluded, though, depending on their length of stay, as there would be less solitariness and less variety of experience once they had established residency. Rimbaud and Rilke travelled widely, Rimbaud itinerantly (on foot) through Europe, but their travel experiences and travel poems stopping the moment they accepted work in other countries, Rilke with his 12 year residency in Paris and Rimbaud with his residencies in London (with Verlaine) and Cyprus in 1921. D.H. Lawrence a travel poet (as well as infamous novelist) if it could be argued he spent enough time alone on his travels (with Frieda Weekley). Lawrence, a good example of the travel poet as eloper or travel poet in self-exile.
Elizabeth Bishop's Brazilian sequence Questions of Travel have the ex-patriot air of the foreigner with a keen anthropological eye. 'The River Man', 'Songs for the Rainy Season', and her profile of Manuelzinho (“Half squatter, half tenant (no rent)”) are like letters from abroad or scientific dispatches. Even the folk ballads from her 10 year stay in Brazil ('The Burglar of Babylon', for example) offer a detailed insider's view on Brazilian society. At least, in what seems like Bishop's first sighting of Brazil, she is aware of the dream-like notion of travel (Oh, must we dream our dreams/and have them, too)...Questions of Travel. It could be argued that the vivid and colourful 'Arrival at Santos' (along with the brilliantly imagined and retrospective 'Crusoe in England') is her only true travel poem from her Brazilian stay; the narrator and her fellow passenger, Mrs. Breen, seeing Santos (“Here is a coast, here is a harbor”… “And gingerly now we climb down the ladder backward”… “Into the midst of 26 freighters/waiting to be loaded with green coffee beaus”) with travellers' eyes, but it is as if once she disembarks the travel poetry stops and residency begins. The poem ends with… “We leave Santos at once/and drive to the interior”. Bishop critically aware of the distinction between travel and touring (and residency).
The rich and privileged British upper classes who partook of The Grand Tour in the 18th Century, mainly to countries in mainland western Europe, did not travel. They were, indeed, abroad, but cossetedly on tour and it is impossible to travel and be transformed if one has not suffered unless, that is, there is suffering at the point of religious exultation or aesthetic transformation. (I dont recall that Mary Shelley had her locker broken into or suffered an allergic reaction to bed bug bites or was offered out by an angry Aussie in the early hours of the morning in dorm-sharing accommodation.) It feels churlish, however, to exclude Whitman with his paeans to the open road and his influence on travel poets like Dino Campana when he might conceivably only fail on the (being) Abroad category. His poetry does almost everything else the best travel poems do. "The soul travels further than the body", and so on.
Mary and Percy Shelleys book A Six Weeks Tour of a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria falls into the category of grand tourists who travel without variety of experience (not enough lows and struggles) and, also, with too much purpose in mind, in this case to philosophize and romanticize and write poems about the nature of the Sublime. Shelley's Mont Blanc exemplifies. Despite its “perpetual streams” and “majestic river” and “cloud-shadows and sunbeams” it is not a travel poem. Although they may have been transformed by aesthetic appreciation, the plenum on which Man and Nature come together and beauty is revealed through the senses of awe, they are tourists and 'Mont Blanc: lines written in the vale of Chamonix a nature poem, albeit a sublime one. The three books in The Prelude relevant to Wordsworths travels in Robespierre's Revolutionary France arguably qualifying, while other books in The Prelude do not?
There is something novel in Armitage's and Maxwell's Moon Country. They follow in Auden's and MacNeice's footsteps; but they are not alone; they write poems about Iceland's landscape, but they do not suffer? If they are not travel poems by my definition then what are they? Poetry as reportage, poetic splices of documentary footage? Poetry as travelogue?
The Bar-fly poet Charles Bukowski drifting around cities and towns in America not a travel poet, the Beat poet Gregory Corso a travel poet for his work written on the road in Europe and North Africa. August Kleinzhaler and his Strange Hours That Travellers Keep a travel collection as the poems straddle experiences in the US and Canada.
The travel poet often resembles a literary pilgrim in the quest for truth or self-enlightenment. Petrarch, as did Chaucer, travelled, in part, for pleasure and has been referred to as the first tourist, but he was often hunting down and saving Greek and Roman literary manuscripts and, in that sense, travels too purposefully. Travel is purposeless until the point of transformation. The point of transformation may be imbued by the traveller's need for solace and spiritual understanding and meaning, but this transformation does not arise by following goals or visiting famous travel Landmarks. When the traveller is changed by experience, the reward is the accidental gift of purpose. A deep appreciation of art or beauty may be a catalyst for this transformation; a Keatsian Rainbow or Ruskin's musings on the Stones of Venice; the beauty of a mathematical proof conceived on a night bus from Bali to Java another; or sublime thoughts about a new take on String Theory, while listening to a blues guitarist in a roustabout bar, north of Auckland; a religious experience may be a trigger; or the acquirement of (perhaps, basic) wisdom or knowledge; a dharma's advice to a novice monk about mindfulness; or something within the consciousness of the traveller that reveals itself as other than the traveller's everyday self. Mindful that one has changed and awareness of a passion that will always serve as a raison detre to the individual, from weaving practical objects from palm leaves to the daily discipline of writing poems.
Like Langston Hughes' poem, the travel poem does not necessarily have to be about the phenomena of travel. The traveller setting up the easel of the journal in front of the Taj Mahal or the Sydney Harbour Bridge travels a shorter distance than Millay and Tomlinson. Indeed, might only qualify as a travel poet on the sole factor of (being) abroad. The travel poet is a wayward pilgrim, seeking truth and solace; a pilgrimage often feeling like elopement or self-exile, being alone, or like being asleep and dreaming; a feeling of mental instability and depression often pervading, or a perpetual state of spiritual yearning which manifests itself as poetic vagrancy.
I did not envisage when I began this introduction (indeed, while still breakfasting at Tawan-inn,) that I would be confident enough (or pompous enough) to propose an answer:
travel poem is a poem written by a vagrant-poet travelling in a foreign country while suffering from mental health issues and in search of spiritual solace and transformation.
I remembered being heartbroken reading about John Clare, the great English Romantic poet, and his walk in 1841 from High Beech asylum in Epping Forest, where he had been sectioned for four years, to his home in Helpstone, Northamptonshire. The experiences Clare recounts (albeit in England) a journey as far away from travel as one can imagine. Clare's anxieties and depression about poetic notions of home and the need for a personal raison detre common to other poets. The French poet Germaine Nouveau, who accompanied Rimbaud to London (along with Verlaine), had a mental breakdown in 1891 in Paris, and afterwards dedicated his life with a religious fervour to travelling as vagrant-poet, modelling himself on Saint Benoit Labre and travelling to Rome, and then further making a pilgrimage to the Santiago de Compostella.
If the vagrant-poet abroad is the true travel poet, then the first travel poet, the patron saint of travel poetry, is the Italian poet Dino Campana (1885 -1932). I read Campana's Canti Orfici (Orphic Songs) about ten years ago, but didn't realise this significance. I knew of his itinerant wanderings and nervous disposition and mental breakdowns, the time he spent in asylums, but not the extent of his travels. He, like Nouveau, dedicated himself, but from a younger age, to a life of vagrancy, travelling to Switzerland and France and taking a series of low-key jobs, often getting arrested and incarcerated. His parents, despairing, paid for him to go to South America, but Campana absconded again and wandered around Argentina. His parents sent him to America and Campana again absconded and led the life of the vagrant-poet. Orphic Songs are a highly impassioned set of poems laid out as a physical autobiographical journey (from Italy to Argentina and back to Italy) and a spiritual one, Canti Orfici mirroring The Longest Day of Genoa, a mystical undertaking conceptualizing the idea of the eternal moment or everything in space and time existing at the same time. The Orphic Songs are incantations. They ponder the different worlds of wakefulness and dreaming. They are about suffering and the broad bandwidths of the travel experience, the highs and the lows, the rich smorgasbord of characters he encounters. They are about going and returning. Changed. Dino Campana struggled to get his work published (his manuscript was lost by an editor-friend) but, having rewritten his book from memory, succeeded on the eve of the First World War in 1914, and was published. He was incarcerated in an asylum in Florence from 1918 until his death in 1932. His work was out of print until a manuscript was discovered in 1971. His book ends with a quote in honour of Walt Whitman whom Campana was influenced by, and admired.
The poems in Dreaming Tigers uphold the Whitman-esque theory of the poet's multiple selves. They appear, at times, to be disparate, read chronologically. Many are obscure to me, which might have something to do with the state of my traveller's mind. They tend, also, like a lot of travel poems, to have a prose outlook , which is why, from Herodotus to William Dalrymple, the travel book has normally been the domain of the prose writer. The prose in these poems taking the reader in the direction of:
England-Hong Kong-New Zealand- Australia-Bali-Java-Laos-Thailand-England.
At one point I thought that I wasn't really travelling, because my interest in every place I visited was to seek out botanical gardens, second-hand bookshops and discover the local poetry-reading scenes, and I reasoned that I could do, and did do, all these things at 'home'. But other challenging experiences reminded me I was far from a sense of home.
I had a transformative experience in a two week stay in a Buddhist monastery in the Nam Song area of North-West Thailand (see 'Water-Lily, Wat Na Luang'), I experienced work on an organic farm in northland, North Island, New Zealand (see 'The Ferryman: Hokianga River 3:am'); I had a wild and disorientating experience after finding myself lost at 4 oclock in the morning after an all-night bender in Pai, Thailand, finding myself followed by a pack of wild dogs (were they hunting me or was I taking them on?). I was lifted out of one of the lowest points of my life by a Dutchman, again in Pai, who whispered two home truths/life mantras that will stay with for the good and forever, and there is a poem about walking into the dingiest bar I have ever seen in Bangkok ('Chalk and Cheese').
However, the majority of poems are about an inner journey, and that journey was often about navigating my way through mournfulness and isolation, deep introspectiveness and depression, coping on my own from country to country with a diminishing budget, an increased reliance on cheap booze, the soullessness of bargain bucket accommodation. Sometimes I felt like the experience of travel was happening to someone else, while I lay in a bunk bed staring at white walls. Time stretched out and slowed down. Space became narrower. Constricting.
I do have many positive memories of travel: walking the rice terraces north of Ubud in Bali; making friends in Padang Bai, (see Padang Bai) Bali, one of whom, Jean-Philippe from Switzerland, is a regular online chess opponent; walking around the temples in Luang Prabang, Laos, but the visceral experience of travel: scabies, sweat rashes, balanitis, bed bugs, mosquito bites, dehydration, anxiety, bronchitis, herpes simplex, stomach bugs, fungal infections, cuckoldry (if cuckoldry can be visceral?) and loneliness and depression conspired to make me a troubled traveller. That is, until the home-like bliss of my two weeks here at Tawan-inn.
I did not travel or write travel poetry as a vagrant-poet like Dino Campana. My backpack was too heavy, my wallet too fat, and my talent too narrow for that, but I slept rough on strangers sofas and on train station platforms and overnight in airport lounges, experienced the discipline of the monk's way of life for two weeks in a Buddhist temple. I was the 50 year old man dorm-sharing in 8-bed rooms with people half my age. I coped with a month of illness and depression on my own in a foreign country…
Arthur Schopenhauer wrote of aesthetic appreciation as one way of alleviating suffering. I saw sunrise and rock formations and Thai and Laos temples of the Lanna period. I walked in ancient caves and marvelled at the stalagmites and stalactites, but my transformative experience came in the form of the Buddhist practice of chanting and meditation and the aesthetically transformative pleasure of writing poetry. I am not a Buddhist, but chanting and meditation was (after practice) a pain-killing experience akin to Schopenhauers theory of aesthetic appreciation. The discipline of writing poems everyday a mediation between the worlds of artistic [and moral] sensibility, and pain and suffthing. You might not think that these are travel poems. And yet, I travelled. I struggled. I wrote. I survived. I might do it differently next time?