Diversion: poems and mountains

Doing two Diversions two weeks in a row wasn’t my plan. However, I really want to keep this blog interesting for anyone who’s out there reading and also for myself, and this is what I’ve been thinking. Hence the following.

This weekend, the recent Wingsuit BASE deaths of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt have been swirling around my mind. My thoughts are with their families, friends, and those whose lives they touched. Personally, I first saw the news on Facebook, and swore loudly as I dropped into the frustration of yet another person I looked up to leaving us too soon. It took going for a run later to get some perspective. For more on how it made me feel, there’s a post from the fall worth checking out. There’s been a serious outpouring of well justified social media condolences. To my mind, the folks at Alpinist always put out really interesting, talented writing: Katie Ives’ piece Poet of Light and Air: Dean Potter is a perfect example, and easily the best thing I’ve read in the aftermath. I’d recommend reading it.

At the end, one particular line caught my eye:

“He lived his life like a poem.”

Which sounds nice. I agree with her statement. But what exactly does that mean? What is a poem? How can one live their life in that way? Given the mystery that surrounds poetry for most people, what does it mean to describe someone’s life as a poem? I want to slog into this, because this is familiar turf, both as a mountain person and also as a poet.

For me, writing poems and doing outdoor adventures are both intensely and essentially creative endeavors. They both follow a few of the same basic pathways within a giant expanse of freedom to choose.

There is the field, space, or area in which it takes place: the general idea for the poem, its form, or the terrain in which the adventure happens.

Some kind of transit is achieved: whether in the woods or on paper, you start one place and end another.

Style likewise. Be it skis or climbing shoes, there’s a method and way that said terrain is traversed. The poet’s style also follows: terse, expansive, some kind of pace unfolding in the way that they place each word, like a footstep, across the page.

Physical terrain is somewhat dictated: you can’t choose to place cliffs, forests, or slopes of snow. But you can choose which ones you want to climb. You choose the conditions in which you wish to go. You choose your partners, or lack thereof.

Poems or stories can spring from anywhere—but for me, the kernel of an idea, the central idea structure towards which I’m writing, that’s somewhat dictated as well by the initial inspiration. It’s very much like rounding a large bend in a trail and staring at a massive face—I stumble onto these ideas, and then writing is the process of fleshing them out so that other people can see how I’m looking at it.

Of course, poems can go in strange directions, and the unifying/underlying ideas aren’t as immobile as rocks or glaciers. So this fluidity to rearrange, combine, and shift can be helpful. It’s the same type of being able to choose, and just like in the mountains, you can be wrong.

Perhaps it’s a learned sense, something like knowing that you’ve turned the steering wheel enough to make the corner just right in a car on the highway, but I can feel when a poem is working. If you don’t turn it right, you’ll go off the road. In my own writing, revision is the process of correcting those turns and noticing when things don’t adhere. Playing in the mountains is the same way—given your method of travel, and the possible ways to use that to get where you’re trying to go, it’s sometimes easy to make the wrong calls and get off route.
This distinction between being on route or way off and struggling matters, because it’s how we differentiate the good life. It’s how we know clean stanzas from messy conglomerations of bullshit masquerading as eminence.

In the mountains or in poems, every move counts. Dispense with punctuation, and things become more austere (check out Cormac McCarthy to see what I mean). Bring a light rack, and you’ll be forced to run things out. Carry doubles of every piece of pro, and you’ll be slow. Decisions carry weight to determine the progress of poems or parties in the mountains, and sometimes there’s room for error—sometimes not.

When I was in school, I often felt that I’d learned about the mechanics and grammar of English only to chuck them out the window when writing poems. Ultra runners now cover in hours what once took months of siege style expedition climbing. I see the same chucking of established conventions happening outside as in writing. Some margins narrow, but some possibilities expand. The ability to draw your own boundaries and succeed within that defined scope is exactly the same.

Putting it all together, a central idea has to happen, taking good advantage of the terrain, the style involved, following the guidelines set down by the travelers given their imagination and abilities and knowledge with every move counting. Success is the objective in either case.

I waded into all of that to give some sense of how I think about poetry, through an outdoor lens. To me, poetry is not some intangible mystery to be dragged forth when people get etherial as a defense for not having the right words. It’s not soul magic. Like painting or digging a proper snow pit, it’s an art. If you’ve never dug a snow pit, you’d be hard pressed to understand much about that art. Same with poems. To be absolutely fair: I can’t explain the art of a perfect fade-away shot in basketball, or how to perfectly drift a car around a turn. Watercolors were the bane of my elementary years. There’s a ton out there that I can’t properly appreciate—but if the talk is of an outdoor life and how it relates to poems, I feel somewhat qualified.

So to live life as a poem—there’s an artistic focus, an imaginative essentiality, an ability to write your own rules based on knowledge and belief and then make proper, worthy moves within those boundaries. I find this statement apt. I find the Alpinist piece a moving, impressive tribute. And hopefully all these words give a sense of why.

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