A Journey into the Freeing Forms

Pilgrim, You Find the Path By Walking | Jeanne Murray Walker | Paraclete Press

In her 1991 poem, “Deciding Where to Stop,” Jeanne Murray Walker confronts the anxiety of walking a cyclical path, “around and around,” nervously, because any possible destination seems as good as every other. “If I kept walking, I would come the whole / circumference of this lake to where I started / and worry would drive me like its slave around again.” When she wrote those lines Walker would not have qualified as a formalist poet, and they would come to be a suitable image of her growing boredom with the “flatness” of much contemporary poetry, including her own.

To reinvigorate her art, Walker began rereading “the masters”—Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, and Donne—and was struck by a vibrancy in them that she attributed in part to their use of strict poetic forms. Writing to a form entails its own angsts, but the old formalists are rarely anxious about “where to stop.” The path is—for a writer of sonnets, say—laid out before them. Apprehending this, Walker apprenticed herself to these greats and determined to learn the sonnet form through extensive practice. The recently published Pilgrim, You Find the Path By Walking—her ninth published collection—is the fruit of that endeavor.

With decades of writing and teaching under her belt and numerous accolades to her name, Walker is no novice poet. Indeed, there are no bad poems in this collection. Yet, with remarkable humility, Walker freely admits that these poems are the work of a student learning a new craft, and presents the passable alongside the extraordinary. Her debt to her masters, Donne chief among them, is frequently on display and always mixed with evident affection. In her own rendition of “Death Be Not Proud,” Death is the unkempt limo driver who keeps his car idling by the curb night after night, and the speaker is shouting out the window, “Where’s your ambition, / Death?”

In “The Knock On Your Door Disguised As a Sonnet,” Walker softens Donne’s proverb to “No man’s an island, / Darling.” More than mere allusion, her playful interaction with the source material springs into a meditation on the sonnet form itself. Formalism is often derided as limiting (“When I stormed to my room and slammed the door, / I made two rooms—you helpless there, sealed in”), and form does impose boundaries, but boundaries need not be barriers. The sonnet—with its eye-opening sestets and problem-solving final couplets—is, after all, a form characterized by reconciliation and the bringing together of disparate parts. “This is a sky, books tell us, that’s a lake. / But things fall into one another’s arms / to find out who they are…”

Ultimately, Walker (a serendipitous name) discovers that (the sonnet) form is a salve to the poet’s own inadequacies, the shortcomings and failures of vision common to the human condition. She imagines, in “Road to Emmaus,” the dejected disciples of Jesus scattering after his funeral, bereft of vocation and direction as well as friend and lord. “Now frankly, their own stories needed ending.” Two who have “opted to find and mend their rotten nets” are walking the familiar road back to their old lives when “He caught up to them at dusk. A maddening stranger / who told a cheerful story. What disaster?” Walker’s pilgrimage into the sonnet is an apology for formalist poetry generally. And while she does not promise salvation by form alone, she imagines form as a path to be walked—and a path where the pilgrim is likely to be overtaken by something or someone greater than themselves.

Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the FORMA Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.

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