Mar 27, 2014
The Writer as Rider
I know a few writers who work standing up. If you're like me, though, writing involves a lot of sitting. As Annie Dillard said, "Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world." I sometimes wonder if this is the real motive behind poetry readings. It's nice to stand up once in a while.
Unfortunately, (if recent studies can be trusted) it turns out that sitting is actually pretty bad for you. Do it for too long, and you risk weight gain, high cholesterol—even loss of bone mass. Don't do it at all, and you probably won't get much writing done. Allow me to propose a solution: Take a ride on a bike. After sitting and writing indoors for three hours, nothing feels better. Sunshine, oxygen, improved circulation, a full-body engagement with the world—it's better than coffee, in my opinion. If the car is, as John Urry says, "a room in which the senses are necessarily impoverished," then the bicycle is a seat on which the senses are continuously enlivened. What's more, writers who freewheel can banish stress and stimulate inspiration at the same time. Einstein famously said, of his Theory of Relativity,
"I thought of that while riding my bicycle." Creative sorts of all kinds have long shared an affinity for this simple machine. Writers of the early twentieth century swiftly incorporated the bike into their nations' literatures. Emile Zola, Arthur Conan Doyle, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre were all avid cyclists. American writers took to the saddle too, including Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, and Ernest Hemingway. Given the long tradition of writing and bicycling, and the way the two activities complement each other so perfectly, the striking absence of the bicycle in contemporary American writing is a little surprising. As is the case on American streets, the automobile dominates the scene.
For example, if you search the University of Houston library catalogue using the keywords "poetry" and "cars", you can find a 300-page anthology entitled Drive, They Said: Poems About Americans And Their Cars. It's divided into seven distinct sub-genres of automotive poetry, including "The Great Escape", "Stopping By The Side of the Road", "Head On", and "Passing Through". (Make no mistake: they're goodpoems. Most of my favorite living American poets are included. I have renewed this book on more than one occasion.)
Search for "poetry" and "bicycles", on the other hand, and you'll be directed to Nikki Giovanni's Bicycles: Love Poems. It's a charming collection. But bicycles, as a cultural phenomenon, are only incidental to the book. You will find two poems entitled "My New Car" and "Flight Delay." As others have asked before, "Where is the poetry of the first Gulf War?", I ask, "Where is the great twenty-first century American bicycle poem?" And I am only half kidding.
Though it hasn't been on our radar for a long time, the bicycle is making an unequivocal comeback in the U.S. The past decade has seen a major upswing in the number of Americans who ride. And in 2013, bike-sharing swept the nation, with new bike-share systems opening up in most large American cities—most significantly, in New York City. It is only a matter of time before bikes re-infiltrate our poems. I, for one, can't wait.
The automobile is a twentieth-century muse. Sure, it lends itself well to confession, and metaphysical meditation. Sure, it has long signified modernity, sex, affluence, power, and freedom. But some of these symbolic values fall apart in the twenty-first century. After GM's bankruptcy and the subsequent bailout, it's a lot harder to make the old, automatic link between the personal car and national prosperity. And consider modernity. In terms of the power to signify the technological sophistication of the present era, it's safe to say the iPhone has occluded the automobile. Millennials seem to prefer them to cars.
Lastly, let's take a look at freedom. If, after the last three decades of foreign policy, you still believe that driving is all about liberty, consider this: How many trips do you have to take by car, each day, to keep your job and have a social life? If you think about it, you may find that driving in the U.S. is largely not about free choice—it's about having no choice. We've designed cars into near-necessity by building huge distances into our communities. In most places, the only available way to negotiate these distances is by car. The infrastructure simply doesn't give you other options. If this is liberty, it looks a lot like coercion to me. But not every place is like this. There are other nations—prosperous, industrial nations—where citizens are not forced to drive everywhere they want to go. The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Japan, for example. These countries see modernity differently. Wealth and well-being are not always defined by car ownership. Just as often, they're defined by the freedom to participate in social and economic life withoutowning a car. In contrast, Americans depend heavily upon the personal automobile. But things are beginning to change. With the advent of Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft, our culture has made a pronounced shift away from its old mindset. Individual car ownership may soon be a thing of the past. Modernity is beginning to look like a public, self-driving car you never have to take to the garage. Or a city that is actually walkable.
The traditional literary depiction of the automobile, then, has lost a good deal of its coherency. But the bicycle offers up symbolic values which the writer of 2014 can truly celebrate: vitality, independence, a world with human beings at the center. A saner regard for the world around us. An antidote to wastefulness and alienation. It's high time writers got back on their silent steeds. As Christopher Morley once said, "The bicycle, the bicycle surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets." (If you don't have a bike and you live in Houston, $5 will buy you 60 minutes on a B-Cycle.)