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Literary Pilgrimages

Seeking the elusive sacred

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

The Jeep was tall, brand new, and a beast, but its brake was as sensitive as sore flesh. If I so much as touched the pedal, it halted with a wounded jolt. The first halt was so sudden I nearly caused an accident. I parked up and returned to the car-hire office to ask for a smaller, safer vehicle – say, a Nissan Micra – but the beast was all they had. So I drove, dangerously, unfamiliar with fast-moving American freeways, the hundred-plus miles from O’Hare Airport in Chicago, arriving an anxious wreck – and nearly causing a few wrecks along the way – at the small town of Fort Atkinson in rural Wisconsin. This was my destination — where Lorine Niedecker had lived most of her life.

Lorine Niedecker is just about my favourite poet. Or one of them, anyway. She died in 1970 and lived an exceptionally frugal life. She worked as, amongst other things, a hospital cleaner. Her home was a riverside cabin at the edge of town, a thin, wooden structure, heated by a stove. Snowed-in during winter, the cabin flooded in spring. Her hardiness seemed, to me, with my mild English winters and central heating, impressive. She had an early marriage that ended badly, and a marriage later in life that was happier. Hardly any of the townsfolk knew she was a poet. Yet she had a rich writerly network beyond Wisconsin — her poetry was admired by William Carlos Williams and Basil Bunting; she was a pal of Louis Zukofsky and Cid Corman. I’d come across her work via the essays of Thom Gunn. I felt a connection with the fragments he quoted and read as much of her as I could. Lorine Niedecker’s poetry is clear, personal, intelligent, spare, and highly memorable — lines stuck in my head, and still return now, aphoristic, musical. I’d travelled to Fort Atkinson with a kind of reverent interest — the journey was one of my literary pilgrimages.

I’d been visiting places connected to writers whose work I liked for a while. It started with Isaac Rosenberg. I was surprised to learn he’d been born in Bristol, where I was living when I read him. The Rosenberg family, recent arrivals from Lithuania, were in Bristol for only a few years before moving to the East End of London in 1897. There, Rosenberg found his way to art and poetry, leaving school at fourteen to become an apprentice engraver before winning a place at the Slade to study painting. I found his poems blunt and odd — poems like ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ seem to me to have a sort of visionary physicality that doesn’t have much link to his contemporaries, either the Georgian poets or anyone else. The Rosenberg family home had been on the other side of Bristol from where I lived, so I walked across the city, a journey of a few hours. I found the street but couldn’t find the correct house number. I wondered if part of the street had been demolished. That mattered, strangely, and I felt disappointed.

Back then, I wasn’t sure of my motivation for the walk, exactly. I’d seen – although not actually been on – religious pilgrimages. My dad is a practising Roman Catholic and when I was a teenager I’d travelled with him to the shrine at Walsingham; later, on holiday in France, we went to the pilgrimage destination of the Basilica at Lisieux. I’d learned more about pilgrimage while writing my history thesis. My general take on Christian pilgrimage is that the shrine is a kind of meeting place between the sacred and the earthly. I always think of this in visual terms, as a bolt of sacred lightning striking the planet, leaving a holy trace. And I think now that my walk across Bristol was a sort of pilgrimage, even if I didn’t think of it like that at the time. I hoped I’d somehow absorb that touch of the ineffable that Christian pilgrims can experience at their destination. That I’d touch the live wire of Rosenberg’s poetic charge. But if mine was a poetic pilgrimage, it was a disheartening one.

I didn’t receive that sacred literary touch on subsequent pilgrimages, either, even when I loved the writers. I didn’t feel a thing on my visit to Dickens’s hometown of Rochester (though I did snort with laughter when I saw his ‘writing shed’ — more a full-sized Swiss Chalet). Zero at Ivor Gurney’s grave, and nothing at Proust’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery except the feeling that the other members of the family interred with him might have been slightly put out that Marcel received top billing — giant letters for the literary giant, relegation to the grave’s edge and a small font for junior Prousts. I felt mild interest but, more than anything, awkward and self-conscious.

Back in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, I arrived at the town library, where I was greeted by the kind lady whom I’d contacted before my journey. She showed me some of Lorine Niedecker’s books, then drove me around town (Thank goodness we didn’t go in the Jeep), pointing out the Niedecker sights. There was the house in which she’d grown up, and then out to the wooded peninsula named Blackhawk Island. On one side ran the river where Lorine’s father had fished for carp and on the other, through the trees, lay Lake Koshkonong. Seine nets were strung up to the far riverbank by fishermen on the day I was there. We reached the cabin (half the size of Dickens’s writing shed) and parked. I walked through the trees.

At Lorine Niedecker’s leafy home, I had no sense of a transference of some poetical power, even after my lengthy journey and its minor difficulties. But there was something about the visit that lingered. The pilgrimage didn’t feel wasted; it gave me a stronger sense of Lorine Niedecker, of her physical and poetic resilience, living and writing at such an extreme of hardship and writerly isolation; it made me admire her all the more, and notice more in her work, too, how it related to the specific world around her. It gave me a greater appreciation of what she had made, what she had experienced.

So, have all my ‘literary pilgrimages’ lacked that sense of the sacred? Have they been simply study trips, a bit of writerly tourism? A few years ago, I returned to the poetry of John Clare, whose poems I’d liked as a teenager. Now, I read more, learned more. I visited Northampton Library, where I sat in the basement; I was brought a box of Clare papers, including one of his notebooks, the one containing ‘Reccolections &c of journey from Essex’, the account of his absconsion from the asylum in Epping Forest and his long walk back to Northamptonshire. I visited the asylum in Northampton where he later lived, and I walked the long straight road from the hospital into town, the same one along which Clare would have made his regular excursions; and I visited Helpston, his home until illness overwhelmed him, still rural and still surrounded by the places of his poems (Emmonsales Heath, Swordy Well); and I visited the nearby town of Stamford to which Clare had often walked, and Burghley House where he was apprenticed as a boy, and the village of Northborough, where his mind could not settle after leaving Helpston.

I also spent an afternoon searching for some graffiti under an arch beneath a road that crossed numerous hollows and ditches north of Helpston. Clare had made the graffiti as a young man, in 1812. My search took a while, leaning into undergrowth to avoid traffic, clattering through bushes, but eventually I found the right arch, deeply shadowed, and littered with rusted tin cans. I was surprised. Unlike the other arches, this one was covered in graffiti. Here, in this hollow beneath an obscure B-Road in Northamptonshire, were dozens of names and initials, and in many places a date. The dates spanned centuries — the eighteenth to the twentieth. The place was a significant location in some way, for what appeared to be the men of the neighbourhood. I hunted amongst the names, then there it was. I traced the letters John Clare had carved into the brick, presumably with his penknife. And running my fingers along those marks which he had cut, I felt…what? Clare’s own touch? Something, anyway. A feeling, a sensation. Perhaps projected, conjured by my own imagination, but something more than a curiosity satisfied or an item of knowledge gained, something deeper, both more bodily and lighter. The flicker of a connection? To some poetic power? The elusive sacred? I’m not sure. But it was something. Fleeting. Faint. Then the moment was gone.

Richard Lambert writes fiction and poetry. His first novel, The Wolf Road, for young adult readers, was a book of the year in The Times, Guardian, and Financial Times, and longlisted for the Carnegie prize. He lives in Norfolk and worked for the NHS before becoming an RLF Fellow.

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