A few years ago poet Stephen Dunn discovered an inclination to be an essayist, "a person who believes there's value in being overheard clarifying things for himself." As he turned to prose writing and the collection grew, Dunn found himself blending thoughts about poetry with musings about his own early experience. Five essays explore the mysteries of composition, the problems and latitudes the poet faces, and the ways in which poetry confers value. The rest are essay-memoirs, touching upon such diverse subjects as basketball, gambling, storytelling, and silence. Though anecdotal, each memoir relates to the poetic mentality. How one walks in a dangerous neighborhood can be analogous to how one moves in a poem. And if one survives the silence of shyness, Dunn convinces us, it can be a storehouse of the unspoken. The title is derived from William Meredith's "Crossing Over." Meredith's speaker, on an ice floe in the middle of a river, says, "I love this fool's walk./ The thing we have to learn is how to walk light."
Like his poetry, Stephen Dunn's essays on poetry (and creativity) are grounded and funny and accessible without ceding intelligence or audacity. There's no unnecessary loftiness in Walking Light. One essay addresses poetry's similarities to basketball--"Perhaps basketball and poetry have just a few things in common, but the most important is the possibility of transcendence.... What you want to be is in some kind of flow"--while another compares the knowledge and daring of poets to that of gamblers. And yet another likens poets to ice travelers: "The farther we go in a poem or on the ice the fewer and fewer choices we have, and we would want it no other way." Throughout the essays Dunn returns again and again to the need for surprise and discovery in a poem: "Your poem effectively begins," he writes, "at the first moment you've surprised or startled yourself. Throw away everything that preceded that moment." Dunn illustrates his points with a terrific selection of poems by Goethe, Randall Jarrell, Ellen Bryant Voight, Paul Celan, and others.