By Any Other Name
- By Michael Thurston
You’ve heard of it. It’s been in the news, a few paragraphs in the Times, a feature on NPR. It’s what we used to call “going for a walk in the woods,” and research suggests that the practice has some health benefits. Whether from the way trees cool and oxygenate the air or from some compounds they give off from bark or bole, or whether it’s just the way the woods offer sights, sounds, and smells different from those that surround us on the streets of cities or suburbs, “forest bathing” seems to be good for us. I’m not one to gainsay any of this; I take a mile-long walk in the woods most mornings, sometimes with my spouse along, always in the company of my dog.
The transformation of “walking in the woods” into “forest bathing” got me thinking, though, that maybe another revision of nomenclature might be useful: “word bathing.”
My other morning ritual is poetry. Sometimes it’s something new (I’m partway through Brittany Perham’s Double Portrait right now), and often it’s something old (just finished rereading, yet again, Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”). This is different from the hours I spend reading and rereading poetry for work, reading poems I’m writing about or teaching. It’s a quiet half-hour, usually on my front porch, living deliberately in the cultivated fields of language. Word bathing.
If the benefits of a walk in the woods include a re-attunement to the natural world and our place in it, those of a sojourn in sonnets include a similar renewal. Indeed, renovation of perception has, for a hundred years, been seen as one of the key rewards poetry offers. Think of everyday language, the stuff we’re constantly surrounded (or bombarded) by, the discourses of advertising and commerce, of politics and law and civic life, of argument and analysis, of hollow communicative gestures (“How’s it going?” “Fine. You?”), as urban and suburban streets. A poem is some space set aside from all of that, a place you can step into and slow down. Like the trees, poetic language regulates its atmosphere. Poetic rhythms and patterns direct and demand attention in new ways. Metaphoric transformations reveal unfamiliar aspects of objects and experiences. If we walk slowly through the lines and their turns (“verse,” after all, comes to us from the Latin word for the turn a plow makes at the end of a furrow), if we breathe deeply and take in the poem’s resonances and emanations, our clichés and prefabricated understandings are cleaned away. We might see, hear, even smell the world anew.
Think of H.D.’s “Sea Rose.” The rose might be the most familiar image in all of poetry. It’s connected, conventionally, to romantic and erotic love, to the God-given order of the universe, to the English monarchy and its tribulations, to beauty, to the secret means of salvation, and more. H.D.’s having none of that. Writing in the 1910s, she strips those calcified significances away. Her rose is “harsh,” “marred,” “meager,” and “sparse,” the repeated sounds emphasizing its lack of those qualities with which the flower is often associated. Yet, the second stanza tells us, this rose is “more precious / than a wet rose / single on a stem.” More precious, perhaps, because seen simply and straightforwardly. We are ushered by the poet’s language into the presence of the thing itself, into an experience of presence itself.
The forest is made out of the same stuff as the neighborhood: rocks and stones and trees. It’s just that we encounter these materials, out in the woods, in a different state. The same is true of language in poems: same stuff, different setting and purpose. And this means that the renovation of perception we experience in a “word bath” applies not only to our view of the natural world but also to our understanding of the social world. And so, when Adrienne Rich dives into the wreck, she brings us not only into contact with the elemental, but also through a revision of the “book of myths” that has heretofore determined our understanding of the elements. " The poem leads us through a death out of the world as made pallid by preconceptions (“black I am blacking out”) and to a rebirth into newly keen perception, a new way of being in the world (“I have to learn alone / to turn my body without force / in the deep element”). "Or Claudia Rankine, in poem after poem of Citizen, turns conventional language, with its unconscious prejudices, against itself to disclose the assumptions of power and privilege within habitual speech: “She wanted her son to go there as well, but because of affirmative action or minority something—she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it?—her son wasn’t accepted. You aren’t sure whether you are meant to apologize for this failure of your alma mater’s legacy program.”
This analogy between poetry and the woods is nothing new. William Wordsworth makes it an article of faith in both the preface and the practice of his Lyrical Ballads (1798); the wilds of Yorkshire fells or nature’s reclamation of the ruined Tintern Abbey stand for him as retreats from a modern society obsessed with getting and spending. But there’s nothing really new about walking the woods either, aside from the attention that the practice gets when reconceived as “forest bathing.” So take a word bath, today, tomorrow, every morning or evening, whenever it fits into your routine. Immerse yourself in the backyard Buddhism of Charles Wright or the serendipitous city streets of Frank O’Hara. Plunge into the cold, salt sea with Stevie Smith or the history of Lake George with Susan Howe. Explore eros in the company of Kimiko Hahn or Carl Phillips. You don’t even have to call it "word bathing." My morning stroll is still just a walk in the woods.
Michael Thurston is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College, and Reviews Editor of MR.