Simon Armitage is the recently-elected Oxford Professor of Poetry with a long list of poetry publications to his name. But that’s not all. He’s also a memoirist, novelist, screen writer, and playwright. Walking Home is the chronicle of his three weeks walk along the approximately 267 miles of the Pennine Way through Northern England, hosted by (mostly) strangers each night, and giving poetry readings each evening wherever he happened to be staying.
I could tell you of some of the adventures and misadventures sure to accompany a hike through the mists and moors, even in summer, but I’ll let you imagine those details or, better yet, read the book. Armitage does an excellent job chronicling each leg of the journey. And I’m impressed that he kept such good notes, when he must have been exhausted each evening. I spent eight days in Peru this summer, on a much less grueling trip, and though I had intended to come home with a journal full of observations, I was quite undisciplined. And I didn’t have to walk my way across Peru.
The best part of the book is not that I could imagine myself on the journey (I could). The best part is the ways Armitage’s observations reflected on the journey as both ars poetica and metaphor for life:
a place that has to be seen to be believed, or perhaps believed to be seen
the journey operates both as an indulgence and a restraint, encouraging a flowing, lyrical style suited to the intoxication of travel and the excitement of youth, but always at a measured and regular pace, so in every way it is a poem which goes by foot
Armitage brings a dry sense of humor to the experience, while remaining wryly honest about the difficulties:
When I confide to a friend that I rate my odds as no more than fifty-fifty, he says, ‘I admire your optimism.’
‘What’s he do?’ ‘He’s a poet.’ ‘Well, that explains it. Has he got a proper job?’
The arc of the poet finding his own limitations, those of body or mind, pervades the book. It is both a humbling and exhilarating experience for Armitage, and I feel for him in both the highs and lows.
Physically, I’d assumed I wasn’t up to it, and it turned out I was. Mentally I thought I was more than equal to the task; turned out I wasn’t.
Of course, there is mist and rain aplenty (after all, this is the good weather of the Pennine Way), and when there is not, there are the insects, by which Armitage was treated the way life often treats us. He was
buzzed by a squadron of horseflies who hadn’t tasted human flesh until ten minutes ago and couldn’t believe their good fortune
The entire journey functions as a metaphor for poetry and for life, with perhaps the unadorned reality of the situation grounding the work. Observing is learning is poetry. Sometimes we encounter poetry whether we want to or not. The magnitude of the undertaking — a poetry reading every night? as payment for your lodging and board? — is staggering, and the results often underwhelming:
Nine people come to the reading. By which I mean the nine people sitting in the residents’ lounge attend a poetry reading whether they like it or not.
Many a poet can identify with that sentiment. But also we identify with the ability to notice the way poetry drops into our lives, unexpectedly or at least unpredictably:
a complete coincidence and the perfect metaphor.
We poets identify with the yearning for the journey, the irresistible pull of poetry:
that alluring, elusive brightness always just up ahead, tempting me forward at full speed.
I highly recommend an armchair jaunt along Armitrage’s trek.