Sunday, June 23, 2013

Think About the Lessons from Walden Pond

When I was about 20 years old, a poet friend told me that I was an enigma. I probably looked a little dumbfounded, because he quickly added (presumably so that I would know it was a compliment) that it was a "very endearing quality." He was quite a bit older than I was (of course, when you're 20, anyone over 30 is "quite a bit older"), but it was one of those rare moments in life when you feel like someone has caught a glimpse of what's inside you and has understood, on a deeper level than most people, who you are.

That's what--and who--a poet is. 

And I don't mean someone who writes verse: You don't have to write verse to be a poet (likewise, one is not necessarily a poet just because he or she writes verse). A poet is the person who sees and understands the enigmatic elements in another person, and a poet is also the enigma. Round and round, back and forth: This is why poets--thinkers, bohemians, artists, and other authentic selves--are drawn to each other.

And Henry David Thoreau was most certainly a poet.

I think that Thoreau's Walden is one of those books that people want to have read but don't actually want to read. In eleventh grade, we had to read a snippet of an already small snippet of Walden out of our literature textbook. It contained the passage that most people recognize and equate with Thoreau: "Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" We probably even discussed it for half a class period.

But how many people have read that passage and thought about what it really means? How many have gone even further and actually applied it to their lives?

And why is that the only passage from Walden that students tend to be exposed to in school? I typed out three (single-spaced) pages of my favorite quotes from the book. I considered them "favorites" because I found them thought-provoking and/or applicable to my life. Or I found them to be things I think--or have thought--only not with as much clarity or eloquence as Thoreau. Consider, for instance, his perspective on clothing: "As for Clothing, . . . perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility." Think about this the next time you put on a skirt, dress, or pair of pants that doesn't have a pocket.

Another choice quote: "While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them."

And his take on education: "We boast that we belong to the Nineteenth Century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture. . . . It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women."

It is surprising to me how so little changes in so much time (about 160 or so years since Thoreau penned Walden) . . . especially when so much has changed.

Thoreau writes that he is "convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough." How come this was not the passage we discussed in eleventh grade English class?

But the reason I know, with certainty, that Thoreau was a poet is because of the line he wrote for me (and for every other poet): "The one who came from farthest to my lodge, through deepest snows and most dismal tempests, was a poet. A farmer, a hunter, a soldier, a reporter, even a philosopher, may be daunted; but nothing can deter a poet, for he is actuated by pure love." This, too, is what makes poets different.

If you can get past Thoreau's periodic bitterness and arrogance, Walden is actually a smart, occasionally humorous, readily accessible, and, perhaps most importantly, relevant book. It should not be taken merely as literature, as a crazy man's two-year living experiment in the woods. That negates its usefulness. It should be read and considered as actual lessons for living.