Tuesday, October 27, 2015

WALKING AND "PURPOSIVENESS WITHOUT PURPOSE"

Guest post by Kurt Caswell 
Kurt Caswell, 2015

Kurt Caswell is a writer and wanderer. Originally from Alaska, he grew up in Oregon, has lived in Idaho and taught in places as varied as Japan, Arizona, California, the Navajo Reservation and even right here in Wyoming at Laramie County Community College (2002 – 2005).

He is currently associate professor of creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech in Lubbock.

Kurt is author of three nonfiction books:

Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents 

In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation

An Inside Passage (winner of the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize)

Kurt is an avid walker, and much of his new book, Getting to Grey Owl, is about walking. He makes a good case for the way walking can realign a person with the places they walk, with nature, and with themselves: their heart, mind, and body.

In today’s post, Kurt muses about the role that walking can play in the writing life.

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Walking and “Purposiveness Without Purpose” 

You likely know this story about Wordsworth. In Grasmere one afternoon, an acquaintance came calling. Dorothy, Wordsworth’s sister, answered the door.
“Is Mr. Wordsworth within?” the fellow asked.
“Mr. Wordsworth is composing,” Dorothy answered.  
“Then I shall wait for him,” the fellow said. “I would like to speak with him when he comes out of his study.”  
“It might be some hours,” Dorothy said. “Mr. Wordsworth is not in his study. He always composes afoot.” 
To talk about walking and writing, there is no better example than William Wordsworth. Though if we were to compile a comprehensive list of writers who walk, it would be long indeed: to speak of a few masters let’s include: Kierkegaard, Rousseau, Basho, Thoreau, Coleridge, and William Hazlitt, Max Beerbohm, Virginia Woolf; then let’s add Bruce Chatwin, Peter Matthiessen, Robert MacFarlane, Sven Birkerts, Rory Stewart, Rebecca Solnit.

And yet, Wordsworth is the original walker, the walker’s walker, the poet who, as Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “made walking central to his life and art to a degree almost unparalleled before or since.”

Kurt Caswell, 2015
Wordsworth, writes Solnit, “seems to have gone walking nearly every day of his very long life, and walking was both how he encountered the world and how he composed his poetry.” It was, for him, not only a means of traveling, but also a way of being. He was apparently able to compose while walking, and then write the results out later. His sister Dorothy recorded in her journal many of her walks with her brother, and of July 12, 1800, she writes, “walked along the Cockermouth road—he [Wordsworth] was altering his poems.”

Though Wordsworth did a fair amount of pacing, particularly in his garden at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where he could see out onto the lakes and the mountains beyond, he is best known for taking the walk out of the garden and into the countryside. Gardens are for the wealthy to walk in; poor people walk the public roads, and Wordsworth wanted to be a poet of the people.

If Wordsworth worked as he walked, then this seems to fly in the face of what contemplative practice is, and that is, rather, to not work while walking. You meditate or practice yoga or go out on a walk to take a break from your writing, and somehow by not thinking of your writing, you return to it all-the-better prepared to write. So it sounds counterproductive to say that Wordsworth composed while walking.

In his lecture “William Wordsworth Walking,” scholar Malcolm Hayward makes sense of this conundrum. He writes, “To put the problem in simple terms, in the poems, the experiences that happen to the walker, have to happen in the context of non-directed, non-purposeful walking, in contra-distinction to, for example, what Dorothy termed ‘walking industriously’ . . . For the idea of the poetry to work, in [Wordsworth’s] walking, the poet has to work at not working.” Somehow by not thinking, or not working while walking, the work is served.

In his essay, Hayward references Kant who explored “‘purposiveness without purpose,’ and “note[s] that it is ‘the mere form of purposiveness in the representation by which an object is given to us, so far as we are conscious of it.’” I think this means that on a walk, the universe offers us objects of meaning, and though we are conscious of these objects, their purpose is not yet clear—we do not think too hard on them while walking. Purpose will arise later in the writing, but so long as the writer walks, the object is present without being troubling. “In walking as work,” Hayward writes, “Wordsworth must retain the ‘form of purposiveness’ without falling into the abyss of actual purposefulness.” Once the walk becomes utilitarian, its benefits vanish. If you go out walking to fix your poem, you will fail. If you go out walking to go out walking, you will fix your poem. Wordsworth walks without a purpose and with a purpose at the same time.


Kurt Caswell, 2015
This is true also of Sven Birkerts, who writes in his book, The Other Walk, “Walking—thinking by way of the body, the feet and legs, filtering the immediate world with senses on high—I’m so much more open to the whims of association than I am when I’m at my desk with my lineup of plans in front of me. I also feel it—though not always—as a movement toward writing, for at a certain point in my circuit, I can’t say how this happens, a different kind of sifting of words begins. . . . for these words and phrases are quickly taken up into the body’s rhythm.”

Walking is a contemplative practice, a practice that offers a reprieve from, and an ignition for, art. Going out for a walk each morning or afternoon to make a space for the work is a contemplative practice suitable to most anyone.

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Lynn chimes in… 

I met Kurt Caswell when he presented at LCCC’s 2014 Literary Connection. My husband, Mike, and I were struck by Kurt’s improbable combination of gentleness and intensity. He read from his work and we were so enticed by Kurt’s sensory, insightful writing that we picked up a couple of his books.


His most recent book, Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents, chronicles over twenty years of Caswell’s travels as he buys a rug in Morocco, rides a riverboat in China, attends a bullfight in Spain, climbs four mountains in the United Kingdom, and backpacks a challenging route through Iceland’s wild Hornstrandir Peninsula.

Learn more about Kurt and his writing at www.kurtcaswell.com.

If you are a fan of traveling, culture, landscapes, walking and wildlife, you’ll find anything Kurt writes to be pleasurable reading. If you are simply a fan of good, thoughtful and thought-provoking writing, I suggest you put Kurt Caswell on your reading list.

Now--time for my morning walk!



3 comments:

  1. I did not know that story about Wordsworth, in fact. Appreciated hearing it. I know I so often find writing ideas when I'm walking or doing some other physical, meditative activity.

    I particularly liked this line: "If you go out walking to fix your poem, you will fail. If you go out walking to go out walking, you will fix your poem." Makes perfect sense to me.

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  2. Thank you, Kurt! What a great post! I do most of my poetry writing while walking, but I thought I was the only one, or that it worked that way because I walk outdoors and nature inspires me. But the act of walking for fun itself is inspiring too! It's one of my favorite things to do.Most other forms of exercise involve suffering, but I would walk even if it wasn't good for me.

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    1. As would I (Susan), Chere. Walking is such a head-clearing activity. I don't even like to listen to music or audiobooks when I walk because I'd rather experience what's around me.

      It's a shame so many physical activities are often turned into chores by labeling them as "exercise" instead of as the joy of movement that they are.

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