“He is the best sailor who can steer within the fewest points of the wind, and extract a motive power out of the greatest obstacles. Most begin to veer and tack as soon as the wind changes from aft, and as within the tropics it does not blow from all points of the compass, there are some harbors which they can never reach…
The poet is no tender slip of fairy stock, who requires peculiar institutions and edicts for his defence, but the toughest son of earth and Heaven, and by his greater strength and endurance his fainting companions will recognize God in him. It is the worshippers of beauty, after all, who have done the real pioneer work of the world…
To say that God has given a man many and great talents, frequently means that he has brought his heavens down within reach of his hands.”
– Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
I wonder at the sheer volume of words that Thoreau crams into works like A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. This is not poetry, works like this, but Thoreau’s work is a journey of a different kind, full of observations that make your head spin in wonder if you take the time to digest his prose. Thoreau is best read in stillness, like great poetry, when you have the time to dance with his words in your mind. Take this analogy of poetry as sailing with the fewest points of the wind. A great poet can work with the smallest little puff of prose and go to harbors the rest of us can’t reach:
held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us”
– Mary Oliver, Snow Geese
As with watching a great sailor and learning from the way they set the sails as the read the tell tales and scan the horizon, reading great poetry instructs and inspires. It’s pulling the heavens down within reach of our hands. Thoreau finds his way to brilliance often in his work, he just takes a long time to get there. Reading Thoreau requires sifting. Reading Oliver you see that she’s already done the sifting for the reader; Whittled down to the essence, what’s left is something wonderful.
When I write I tend towards Thoreau-level volume. I’m working on setting the sail a bit closer to the wind. To dance a little closer to the essential truth. There are harbors I’d like to visit still.