This weekend’s reading included an essay from a 2010 issue of Poetry Magazine, which has been in a “to read” stack of books I’ve hauled around for a decade, but still hadn’t read. Grad school killed off reading for pleasure; the Coronavirus shutdown revived reading for pleasure; go figure.
The essay, Why Live Without Writing — Unpopular answers to poetry questions, after which I titled this post, is an essay that probably every writer has a draft version of in their head, for which this one could serve as a fine surrogate.
It’s about the three questions that “a poet is always asked once he’s become reasonably well established, i.e., isn’t forever required to spell his name.” (Or her name, Durs, right? Okay, okay.) And funny, I’d never have come across the essay if it hadn’t been in paper form on my shelf, but checking now, here it is online. Handy!
Phenomenon of reading: what you’re reading today sometimes sparks ideas or solutions to a problem you were thinking about ten years ago, or even yesterday.
For me it happened in this paragraph, which begins: “Anyway, they don’t contribute much to spiritual variety.” Here Durs Grünbein is referring to those he calls “non-artists” (a classification he leaves undefined, but, does it need further definition?).
Anyway, he goes on, almost bitterly: “If it were up to them there would only be the world as is, which means rough and ready, drearily underexposed, a place of torment and tedium, a global Golgotha without witnesses—and not because they are entirely devoid of imagination and playfulness themselves so much as because all their activities are essentially negative, a sopping up of resources, a clearing away of what existed previously, a destruction of terrestrial substance without a chance of any revision, let alone irregularity. In truth, it is they who are holding negation, the philosophers’ rattly old machine gun, in their hands, and it is they, not the bearded wise men of stoa and academy, who have most frequent recourse to it. They don’t have to be ill-intentioned, it’s enough that they continue to do what non-artists do when they are bored. Which means behaving like normal consumers of the universe, always busy, always on their treadmill, aka “the real world,” or “common sense,” or “business as usual.”
As I read that, of course my thoughts instantly turned to the engineers who’ve been writing the standards and installing our transportation infrastructure for the past forty years. Didn’t yours? Ha, I kid.
But “a place of torment and tedium” is not a bad characterization of what most of America drives around on. Or is forced to bike on. Rereading that paragraph, it fits the ongoing road expansions we all endure and pay a price for, from the “sopping up of resources” and “clearing away of what existed previously” to the “destruction of terrestrial substance without a chance of any revision, let alone irregularity.” And how about that line, “normal consumers of the universe.” I can’t help but think of cars.
Friday, after writing an (admittedly schoolmarmy) email to the Oregon Transportation Commission to ask that the Chair’s microphone please be muted during the livestreaming of public testimony, I clicked over to bike twitter, even though I’m supposed to be on a self-prescribed “twitter sabbatical” while I consider post-2020 life direction & get other work done.
Jonathan Maus, publisher of BikePortland.org (for which I’ve written a few posts), had posed this question, & I had to give it more thought: “Is there one clear, tangible, effective metric bike advocates can use that demonstrates the need for more bikeways & builds needed political/public urgency to actually make some real progress?”
It’s an interesting discussion (it was all I could do to get back to other work & stay off twitter). I use a bicycle for transportation, but have felt equally unsure what to tell transportation planners I need, exactly, as in a metric. That in fact could stall bicycle infrastructure progress. So while doing other things, I considered the question, racking my brain to come up with what my metric would be. I kept feeling like something is missing.
Maybe if I could define my best experiences with riding, I thought.
Good rides come when I’m biking on a buffered bike lane, dirt trail, path, paved trail, abandoned sidewalk, shoulder of a two lane highway—
“Not helpful, we need to know what your bike infrastructure needs are specifically, & that list doesn’t help us at all,” a Department of Transportation survey might tell me, offering a box to type my answer in. “Tell us: Can you really get by with just a bike? How long have you biked? Why do you bike?”
Well, hold on, now! You didn’t even let me finish!
Incidentally, those are the three questions Grünbein says are asked of poets in his essay. I’ve just paraphrased them.
“Can you really live off it?” is the first of them … Live off it is a way of saying: these fruitless verbal stunts, prestidigitations, aptitudes must surely lack in market value what they claim to have in terms of significance. To sensitive poets’ ears it will sound like a threat, a tactless reminder of a bad habit, a warning against something that will surely end up as parasitism, in the warm bath of a state-endowed hostel.
As I was saying… My best experiences biking have happened on all kinds of ground, and added up over time. They include: when I’m riding, and get a sudden hit of perfume from Sweet Box Sarcococca or fresh cut hay, or Drunken Noodle & Panang Curry that makes me stop, mouth watering, to look for a place to lock my bike and buy some food. Or: it’s a quiet Sunday or holiday or Covid-19 shut down so there are no cars around for miles or minutes, and after tasting wild blackberries, the rustle of leaves in a tall oak’s branches is the loudest thing around. And when a car does approach, the driver passes slow, and nods a greeting, & we see each other. Or I’m with my beloved, finding a spot on a rustic field to watch the eclipse after biking 25 miles, or his daughter is with us and we’re exploring a slough, or I’m alone, stopped at a red light and laughing at how drenched I’ve just gotten in a rain & hail downpour, or I’m alone and happy on my way to a new job, or hauling a new desk chair home in the bike trailer, well-separated from any cars, or just riding in one of those quiet, car-free stretches, feeling nothing but Being as I pedal, tires crackling in gravel, whirring on pavement, or writhing in loose dirt.
“But the trickiest question is always the third one,” writes Grünbein, “Why do you write?” I think that final question, which for this analogy is, “Why do you use a bicycle,” is really implying, “why don’t you use a car, like the rest of us, especially when we’ve built the transportation system with cars in mind?”
Hard to squeeze the answer to that into a metric. Yet we need to try. Because if I’m being generous, a traffic engineer (aka the non-artist in this analogy) perhaps does not know how to help more people experience the freedom, or invitation, to cycle. (If I’m not being generous, the engineer simply does not care.) To be honest, sometimes I wish I did only want to drive a car. In spiritless moments I do. My bicycle & I are a round peg trying to fit in a car-shaped hole. Why resist going back to car ownership for all these years?
Since the bicycle is the writing of poetry as much as a mode of transportation—at least for me—the question of why do it begs a spiritual answer, to remind even me when I’m depleted of courage. Not a religious answer (though there are bicycle evangelists, urging that bikes are a cure for climate change, or key to getting ahead in one’s finances). And certainly not metrical, though maybe the metric is embedded somewhere in it. Just as a poem may be written metrically, but is not itself the metric. It is the poem. It is the flower, unnamed.
But the question still lingers with me, just as I wanted to know that great-smelling January flower’s name so I could tell you exactly which one I love the smell of. And after some online searching, I found it. It’s the name that lets you plant it in your own garden, lets you recreate what I remember smelling. But you can’t smell the name itself; seeing the word holds little meaning if you’ve never smelled Sweet Box Sarcococca. In that case, “flower” might have worked better in that earlier paragraph where I named it.
Maybe this is a difference between transportation with cars and transportation with bicycles; engineers wanting to name what can’t be easily captured. Bicycle transportation is most things that car commercials claim cars are, that cars can’t ever actually be. Experiences on a bicycle involve all the five physical senses—smell, sight, touch, hearing, and taste—to a degree and height that the Car can’t attain. And biking often awakens senses beyond the physical, too. That’s a lot of bang for the transportation buck. No, the bicycle is not drugs. But it can change your state of being, when it’s a good trip.
One metric might be, we just don’t want a bad trip. No one wants a bad trip. But on a bicycle, or walking, or even playing in front yards near roads, we’re out in the environment that the metal frame of a car removes humans from. That is a huge difference in the modes that engineers simply aren’t bothering to engineer for. They keep making their roads wider—read louder—covering more and more Place, removing trees, bees, trails and flowers, even homes and businesses, to lay more cars upon. A bad trip inside a car often means your own car is defective; your own car is to blame. A bad trip outside a car, can probably be blamed on autocentric planning, that is, cars collectively.
I can accept that “spiritual variety” can’t necessarily be engineered, but gardeners might have insight into the creation of a place where trips are good and easy and also have the potential for inspiration. Gardens are a place you can move from point A to point B, but as you go, you are in the place. Gardeners do need to know a bit of data, like the name of good-smelling plants, and soil metrics, but they also plant artfully, to delight people. Garden designers would never run a bunch of loud generators right next to the travel path, or put the hot air exhaust box for an air conditioner next to a bench. They know that would be uncomfortable and unpleasant for the traveler.
In a car, traveling point A to B, the place you’re in is the inside of your car. Traffic engineers aren’t considering what the outside environment feels like, because you aren’t going to experience it anyway. But on a bicycle, we do.
We’re affected by the place we’re moving through, hearing, seeing, and smelling. The environment has the potential to enrich us. But it can also deplete or even enrage us, as do many of the horrible environments designed for cars as we bike through them. We may resist returning—to our own commute! How will that work? The places cars “like” (cars can’t like or dislike) are not places humans like.
Ideally, the places we travel through would not attack our physical senses with the ear-crushing rush of a thousand motors, revving under tires turning at reckless-feeling speeds on wet roads in a screaming whine, like the neverending hum of tinnitus. We don’t want our hearts in our throats as we come to the end of a relatively conflict-free stretch, only to find we’ve got to cross a melted glacier runoff of cars, at a place that at 2PM was crossable, but now at 5:30PM, is not; we don’t want to channel adventurer Christopher McCandless, trying to return to civilization only to find the spring Teklanika River too swollen to cross.
On my bicycle, I’d prefer not to get stranded. A suburban trip across town to the grocery store should not become a sequel to Into The Wild. On my next DOT survey, maybe I can just link to the clip below and say, “Don’t create rivers of cars, please.”
While engineers tend to be obedient to uninspiring standards, I don’t believe all engineers are spiritless, or incapable of artistry. Surely they have the ability to translate this sort of request into infrastructure. And if they don’t, then that is the trouble, and the spirit and art of transportation is lost. I’ll hold out hope that it isn’t.