Travel poems that capture the joy of exploration and inspire journeys
Like the blast of a ship’s whistle or the click-click-clack of train wheels, travel can be insistent. The second you leave home it starts demanding that you tell its story. It tugs at your elbow. It turns into a daily pest.
What you’re doing should be recorded! Snap photos! Post those views on Facebook! Jot things down!
Although there are lots of ways to tell the story of a trip, travelers tend to pour their experiences into prose. Think articles. Think diary entries. Think blogs. With everyone these days on the hunt for information — for tips and lists and facts — the poetry of travel has often been neglected.
To address that, the Travel section in September asked readers to submit their favorite poems about being away from home along with a few lines about how poetry has helped to open up destinations, deliver a smile or a smirk, or capture the sensations of life on the road.
I combed through the more than 70 responses — some from as far away as India, Sweden, Spain and Scotland — and found myself in the middle of a forest of old favorite lines and many more new ones I had never explored. Below is a sampling of submissions. Thanks to all who contributed.
Perhaps because its images are so exotic, three readers submitted John Masefield’s “Cargoes” as an example of how words and their sounds can create a longing for far-off places — even if you don’t catch their meaning right away. “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir” begins this short poem by Masefield, who was England’s poet laureate during the mid-20th century:
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
“This pick may seem very old-fashioned,” said Elisa Petrini of New York, “but as a child growing up in Detroit in the early 1960s, I read this poem over and over and dreamed of seeing the world. I still know it by heart.”
Patricia Ingram of Glasgow, Scotland, agreed: “‘Cargoes’ captured my imagination at an early age, maybe 10 or 11 at primary school. Some of the words were exotic, and I know now that it was also the rhythm of the verses that I liked and the touches of alliteration in each one. Thoughts of ships on the ocean and new horizons seemed worlds away from my life in the city.”
Lynne Osborne of South Pasadena has her eye on going places by plane rather than by ship. She recommended “Takeoff” by Timothy Steele, a poet and professor of English at Cal State Los Angeles. “Our jet storms down the runway, tilts up, lifts,” wrote Steele. “We’re airborne, and each second we see more.”
Soon, like passengers pushed into the sky, we get to these lines:
How little weight
The world has as it swiftly drops away!
How quietly the mind climbs to this height
As now, the seat-belt sign turned off, a flight
Attendant rises to negotiate
The steep aisle to a curtained service bay.
For Osborne, Steele’s poem hits home because he “talks about an aspect of travel that is shared by so many of us.” Air travel, for Osborne, is “a transcendent experience, but we as travelers often focus on the minutiae of it — the seats that strangle us, the neighbor who snores, the flight attendant who rises to negotiate the steep aisle to the curtained service bay.’”
Among the readers who couldn’t resist Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic “Travel,” from “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” is Janet Cornwell of Manhattan Beach, who said its language is “rich with wanderlust.” The poem includes these far-flung images:
Eastern cities, miles about,
Are with mosque and minaret
Among sandy gardens set,
And the rich goods from near and far
Hang for sale in the bazaar;—
Where the Great Wall round China goes,
And on one side the desert blows,
And with bell and voice and drum
Cities on the other hum;—
Where are forests hot as fire,
Wide as England, tall as a spire….
Stevenson’s poem “had me at the opening lines,” wrote food critic Mimi Sheraton of New York: “I should like to rise and go / Where the golden apples grow.” Said Sheraton: “I assume I first read it, or had it read to me, when I was about 5 growing up in Brooklyn. The result is my life as a food and travel writer, rising and going in search of golden apples for six decades and still counting.”
Gillian Kendall of Holmes Beach, Fla., didn’t need to deliberate for long before sending Gerald Stern’s “Kissing Stieglitz Good-Bye” because, she noted, “I’ve been carrying [it] around the world with me since it appeared in, I think, the New Yorker in about 1980.” “Every city in America is approached / through a work of art, usually a bridge /…" begins the poem. “Pittsburgh has a tunnel — / you don’t know it — that takes you through the rivers / and under the burning hills.”
… Some have little parks —
San Francisco has a park. Albuquerque
is beautiful from a distance; it is purple
at five in the evening. New York is Egyptian,
especially from the little rise on the hill…
“When I first read this poem, as an undergraduate at Rutgers University,” Kendall said, “I had never heard of Stieglitz … but I’d lived in New Jersey for several years and I was awfully familiar with the tunnels and bridges that connected the unglamorous state with the glittering city beyond.... This poem combines beauty and sadness and travel, all of which I was just beginning to understand as a teenager.”
Several readers chose poems not because they describe particular destinations or ways to get around, but, as Carissa Green of Grand Forks, N.D., put it, “for the tension … between the experience of traveling and the longing for home.” Green loves Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel” so much that, like Kendall, she remembers that “there was even a time in my life when I’d copy the poem out longhand on loose-leaf paper and then tuck it into my suitcase when I went on a trip as kind of a talisman of words for the emotions and stress of a journey.”
In the poem, Bishop might have been thinking about Green’s “tension” when she asked: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? / Where should we be today?...”
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?...
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
Picking up on a similar idea, Tim Lynch of Collingswood, N.J., talked about “the two extremities of travel: the leaving and the coming back” while focusing on his favorite travel poem, “The Peninsula,” by Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. “When you have nothing more to say, just drive” Heaney wrote,
“For a day all round the peninsula…"
And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,
Water and ground in their extremity.
Linda Alexander of San Pedro also thinks of home when she thinks of travel. She chose the poem “Vagabond’s House” by Don Blanding, explaining that it “speaks of the house its subject will build and fill with cherished items from travels.” “When I have a house … as I sometime may,” wrote Blanding, who, in the 1920s and ‘30s, was sometimes thought of as Hawaii’s unofficial poet laureate, “I’ll suit my fancy in every way. / I’ll fill it with things that have caught my eye / In drifting from Iceland to Molokai…"
A paperweight of meteorite
That seared and scorched the sky one night,
A moro kris … my paper knife …
Once slit the throat of a Rajah’s wife.
The beams of my house will be fragrant wood
That once in a teeming jungle stood…
“My father enjoyed reading [this] aloud to me as a young girl with his beautiful sonorous voice,” Alexander said. “The poem has inspired me to travel and explore and I have shared it with my four grandsons whom I hope to also inspire.”
There are those who always daydream of future trips, whether they’re in the middle of a current adventure or in an armchair surrounded by memorabilia — a bit like the speaker in Blanding’s “Vagabond’s House.”
Sarah Burns of Seattle wrote that one of her many favorite poems about travel is “May 2" by David Lehman “because it motivates me to immediately begin planning my next trip.” “Let’s go to Paris in November,” Lehman wrote:
it’s raining and we read
the Tribune at La Rotonde
our hotel room has a big
bathtub I knew you’d like
At the end of the poem, the speaker seems to jump into his own dream of being in Paris, crashing words together in anticipation, expressing a need to get moving like no piece of prose could:
“And we can be a couple
of unknown Americans what
are we waiting for let’s go.”
Does that sum it up for those who are always imagining new trips? Or for those who are endlessly planning? “The last line,” said Burns, "[is] just perfect.”
Readers’ favorite poems of travel:
“Song of the Open Road" by Walt Whitman is in various collections such as “Selected Poems by Walt Whitman” (Dover Thrift Editions, 1991). Full text at bit.ly/1yQxCA2.
“Ulysses" by Lord Tennyson is included in “Alfred Tennyson: The Major Works” (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009). Full text at bit.ly/1HhuuTE and other websites.
“The Road Not Taken” is included in “The Road Not Taken: A Selection of Robert Frost’s Poems” (Owl/Holt Paperbacks, 2002). Full text at bit.ly/1hOnHUn.
“Cargoes" by John Masefield is from the collection “Salt-Water Poems and Ballads” (Nabu Press, 2010). Full text at bit.ly/1uNgDiN.
“Takeoff" by Timothy Steele is from “The Color Wheel” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). Full text at bit.ly/1t2S9xK and other websites.
“Travel” by Robert Louis Stevenson is included in “A Child’s Garden of Verses: A Classic Illustrated Edition” by Robert Louis Stevenson (Chronicle Books, 1989). Full text at bit.ly/1p1xVb4 and other websites.
“Kissing Stieglitz Good-Bye" by Gerald Stern is from his “Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992" (W. W. Norton, 2010). Full text at bit.ly/1ubZtqa and other websites.
“Questions of Travel" by Elizabeth Bishop is included in several collections, including “The Complete Poems: 1927-1979" by Elizabeth Bishop (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983). Full text at bit.ly/1F17g0j.
“The Peninsula" by Seamus Heaney is included in several book collections, including Heaney’s “Poems 1965-1975: Death of a Naturalist / Door Into the Dark / Wintering Out / North” (Noonday Press, 1988). Full text at bit.ly/1uxS08v.
“Vagabond’s House" by Don Blanding is from his collection “Vagabond’s House” (Applewood Books, 2002). Full text at bit.ly/1qtXMtf.
“May 2" by David Lehman is from the collection “The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry” (Scribner, 2000). Full text at bit.ly/1uxTQ9i.
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