The best lesson a poet ever taught me wasn’t even a lesson. It was a hike.
Paul Willis, an English professor at Westmont College, began my first Creative Writing class by leading us off-campus and onto a trail through the Montecito hills. Our only assignments were to follow silently and enjoy the scenery. After thirty minutes of ducking under branches and stepping over streams, we were back in class, feeling refreshed. Then, Dr. Willis asked his only question, “So, what did you see?”
At first, my classmates and I began describing common details: certain trees or flowers, the nice weather, the streams. Yet after we had cleared our throats, we began describing the tinier marvelous things we found hidden around each turn: sunlight waving with the breeze through a cobweb, rocks stained by flowers crushed underfoot. And just at the moment when we all felt a new sense of wonder, class was over.
Maybe Dr. Willis’ lesson was about paying attention, clearing the mind. Maybe our discussion led us to a unique lesson he’d never planned. Yet, the lesson I learned has become my central metaphor for the writing and teaching of poetry, and that is the art of trailblazing.
Trailblazing and the writing of poetry are forms of exploration. They are similar in ways to our discoveries about space and the deep ocean, though not as cosmically grand. Simply, trailblazing begins with an idea of which direction to go: the first step up the hill is the writer’s first line of ink on the page; the dictating landscapes of the mountain are the textures of the writer’s rhythms and vocabularies.
Eventually, we discover a new place we never knew was there, feeling a sense of wonder and completion. The poem becomes the path we’ve blazed to get there, all the hidden treasures revealing their mysteries at every turn, discoveries made by accident. Yet the poetry is the poignancy we feel when we go back to our lives, sensing that we might know ourselves for the first time.
Exploring new areas and new ideas, be it through writing, traveling, or simply taking a new way to work, are simple alternatives to the banality of our uncreative routines. Seeing the same thing, thinking the same thoughts, is like walking a trail so often that our feet stamp out all possibility for new growth.
All of us must free ourselves when we feel stuck. It is crucial to our happiness that we learn how to look up again, learn how to see with new eyes what is mundane: the way sunlight shatters on bottles; the way footprints melt into snow.
If anything, the lesson my class learned with Dr. Willis was how to teach ourselves to see the world not as it is, but to see the world as we are. To take long walks inside our selves, stepping into wonder.
Daniel Elias Galicia is an ESL teacher currently working in South Korea whose passion is reading and writing.