Our Spoken Word Editor Bruno Cooke is off round the world on two wheels. Here he considers the joy of cycling, with some of his favourite poems about bicycles
Those who know me personally (and now even some who don’t!) know I like, or even love, to cycle. But ’twasn’t ever thus, or ’tisn’t: I don’t have one of those suits with the funny straps, or a leotard or a colourful jersey, and I don’t really go out on day rides (with or without The Club). It’s always been purely practical – getting from A to B, commuting, or actual work (I was a Deliveroo cyclist for eight wintery months in east London) – or, you might say, purely impractical. That is, inventing an A and a B that are particularly far apart, and insisting on using only a bicycle to get there.
This is what we call cycle touring, as distinct from bikepacking and ultra long distance cycle racing. If cycle touring is to hiking the UK coastal path or walking the Camino de Santiago, bikepacking is to trail running the Appalachian Trail, or something. It’s lighter weight, possibly offroad, more streamlined, and involves fewer comforts. The best example of an ultra long distance cycle race this side of the Atlantic is the Transcontinental Bike Race (usually about 4000km, across Europe), which happens once a year, and for which I like to think I’m training, by cycling around the world.
It’s a good question, why I do it – or why we do it, because there are lots of us – with answers that come and go with the wind. The shortest is that I want to see as much of the world as possible and believe the best way to see it is by bicycle. No window frame putting a box around what you can see, no motor helping you on tough terrain, and sticking to land routes where feasible. My earliest answer was that I wanted to have stories to tell. When I was 19, I cycled from London to Paris, then to Luxembourg, Maastricht, Brussels and back home via Calais, partly because I’d met people during my first year of university who had taken a year out and been to places. I thought they were really cool; I, too, wanted “to have travelled”, or to be more like an adult, or something.
Bikes and biking lend themselves well to poetry and poemising, as the selection of works below show
You also pick up reasons as you go. There’s a particular joy in entering a country for the first time by bicycle, breathing it immediately, seeing it panoramically and, for better or worse, smelling it with both nostrils. Wild camping “off the beaten track” is at the best of times dreamily spectacular, and at the worst, um, character building. You get all the satisfaction of the slow traveller – seeing cultures, languages and traditions melt one into the next and partaking of each country’s choice of culinary delights all day everyday – while at the same time being sun-kissed, quite fit, charmingly windswept (some might argue this point…) and able to eat as much of whatever you want, whenever you want, since you’ll only burn it off. You need it for them there muscles, see.
And perhaps most important of all, though least predictable, are the human connections you make along the way. Camaraderie between touring cyclists is fun and gets better the further from the pastime’s epicentres you drift: I’ve traded books, clothes and life advice at the drop of a hat with Irish, Swiss and Austrian cyclists in eastern Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan. At certain bottlenecks, mainly while waiting for ferries and visas, cyclists come together and share stories of their travels. And last but never least, I met my partner while biking through Chisinau, Moldova. We’ve been together for nearly five years. What were the odds of us meeting? They wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t put in the legwork! The German director Werner Herzog reckons filmmakers are like thieves. They go into a place, find magic, capture film, and vanish, leaving little or no trace. Well, I sort of see cycle tourers in the same way. We’re everywhere, whether you like it or not, finding magic, observing the world up close and leaving it, mostly, unchanged.
Bikes and biking lend themselves well to poetry and poemising, as the selection of works below show. The act of cycling is repetitive, meditative – the world floats by, the chain hums along, thoughts come and go – and the body of the bicycle is but one metaphoric step from the body of a person. It has two wheels, two handlebars, two pedals, limbs, a beating heart and, if it’s lucky, a leg to stand on. It is angular, elbowed – as Michael Laskey writes in ‘Bike’. The points of contact are intimate: hands, feet, bum. You have to listen to it; if something’s wrong, that’s usually how it’ll tell you. It can be temperamental or steadfastly reliable, sometimes even both at the same time. The bike is more than the sum of its parts (oh, oh! like a poem!), and such is the union of bike and person. It will sit there in the rain or sail with you through sunshine, a steed in shining armour, more than a vehicle.
The bike is more than the sum of its parts (oh, oh! like a poem!), and such is the union of bike and person. It will sit there in the rain or sail with you through sunshine, a steed in shining armour, more than a vehicle
The best place to start is Ten Poems about Bicycles from Candlestick Press – a mini-anthology of bicycle poems with poems by Connie Bensley, James Roderick Burns, Jonathan Davidson, Michael Donaghy, Jonathan Edwards, Jacqueline Gabbitas, MK Joseph, Derek Mahon, Paul McLoughlin and The Friday Poem’s very own Helena Nelson.
Published first in 2009 and a second time in 2018, it is a lovely, bitesize collection of cycling poems from roughly the last century. The poems that make it up are uncomplicated, sometimes boldly simple and, though not at the same time, both heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny. From Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Nun on a Bicycle’ (‘who’s to say the God who isn’t there / isn’t looking down on you and grinning?’) to James Roderick Burns’ ‘Boy on a Bicycle’, destined for war, and Helena Nelson’s ‘Bike with no Hands’, which is as much an expression of parental love as it is a poem about bicycles – like the components of a chainset, they work somehow together, the sum and its parts.
A personal favourite is Connie Bensley’s ‘Wheel Fever’. It tells, via a series of short, Post-It Note-style episodes, of a certain cycling enthusiast’s highs and lows in the saddle. They are, at first, afraid to sink ‘three months of my salary’ buying a Coventry (like the one Frank Reynolds has got). I now know that Coventry was, in the late 19th century, the bicycle manufacturing capital of the world. Then comes an ill-fated test ride, a nasty run in with a carthorse hauling ‘22 stone of bread and 6 stone of flour’, and a blighted trip to a prayer meeting. Finally – almost – Bensley’s rider hits a stone while riding with arms folded, and comes a cropper. Altogether, you might think, enough to turn anyone off cycling. And yet: ‘I miss it dreadfully’, she writes, while the bicycle is in for repairs. And that Frank Reynolds, curse him, is unwilling to lend her his. But wounds are temporary; a love of cycling is not.
But I have had a carrot poultice put on
my eye and I shall soon be fit enough
to ride again.
Michael Donaghy’s ‘Machines’ is the penultimate poem in this beautifully produced pamphlet. “Dearest,” it opens, “note how these two are alike: / This harpsichord pavane by Purcell / And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.” Donaghy is addressing someone here – let it be you – and teaching a lesson both technical and intimate. His rhymes almost disappear behind a bold and distinctive lexicon. Words like ‘machinery’ and ‘gadgetry’, and phrases such as ‘chrome trapezoid’ and ‘concentric gears’, seem somehow conspicuous in a text that opens like a love letter. But the poem finds balance: it is machinery of grace, gadgetry of love. Intimate and technical, agility and desire, working together like Dante and Schwinn. And if, for some reason, something should fail, Donaghy (or his persona) will ‘fall’ – off the harpsichord chair, off the bicycle, in love. Is this a poem about bicycles and harpsichords, or a poem about poetry? The poem ends,
[…] So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove
Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.
Leaving Ten Poems about Bicycles, balance is a focal point of Nancy Willard’s ‘The Migration of Bicycles’, too. There are two sides to a bicycle’s coin: they ‘flash among cars’, leaning ‘so low into the curved wrist of the road’ – a turn of phrase I love – that ‘to brake would kill them’, and yet a pack will stand ‘yoked’ for hours, patient and still. The bike is two-bodied, both carthorse and colt, at ease in stillness, in rain, and equally so in flight. And it waits, Willard writes, like a ‘severed centaur’. Why? Centaurs are half human, half horse: liminal creations at once wild and tame. Like the humble bicycle, they are caught between two states of being, and able, at a moment’s notice, to draw on reserves of both.
The Migration of Bicycles
I have seen them flash among cars or lean
so low into the curved wrist of the road
to brake would kill them, yet a whole pack
will stand for hours in the rain
yoked to each other, chained to the rack
till the shops close. I have seen
them balanced on one foot like a clam,
the front wheel turned, at ease. It waits
like a severed centaur, for lover or thief
to give it a running push, shift gears, and ride
off with the Great Bear and the full moon
hooping the earth, winding the spring tide.
– from In the Salt Marsh (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). Read ‘The Migration of Bicycles’ and about Nancy Willard on the Poetry Foundation.
Pablo Neruda creates, in his ‘Ode to Bicycles’, an atmosphere reminiscent of the world into which we imagine centaurs to have been born. The earth, he writes, ‘was hot, / an infinite circle’, overrun by ‘sizzling’ roads and ‘blazing maize’. But in the dry chaos of summer, it is neither drayhorses nor racehorses to which he compares the bicycle. Instead, they are insects ‘barely stirr[ing] the air’, their ‘beetle backs’ whirring through the midday sun. Yet the same juxtaposition rears its head. Like Willard’s severed centaurs, Neruda’s bicycle exists in two states. It can be either a ‘translucent insect / humming / through summer’ or ‘a cold / skeleton’. But Neruda goes a step further: ‘only moving / does [a bicycle] have a soul’; it takes that human touch to bring it to life.
Ode to Bicycles
I was walking
a sizzling road:
the sun popped like
a field of blazing maize,
an infinite circle
with an empty
blue sky overhead.
A few bicycles
moment of summer,
Workers and girls
were riding to their
their heads to the sky,
sitting on the
of the whirling
as they rode by
bridges, rosebushes, brambles
I thought about evening when
sing, eat, raise
at the door,
does it have a soul,
and fallen there
a translucent insect
that will return to
when it’s needed,
when it’s light,
of each day.
On which note, and this is something I know very well, sometimes that human touch is just not enough. After so many months, so many miles, it takes know-how to keep a bike happy. If it weren’t for its opening stanza, Gillian Allnutt’s ‘Ode’ would read, the first third of it anyway, like a declaration of love – as in, one spoken to a human. She has spent sleepless nights, she writes, ‘pondering your parts’ – the bicycle’s parts, both private and not so; ‘repeatedly, / painstakingly’ tried to ‘patch things up’. She wants only to maintain a ‘workable relationship’. We’ve been there, many of us, listening, diagnosing. What is it that makes a bicycle, or a person, ‘tick / over smoothly, or squeak’? Oats may work for one. But the anthropormophism, and suggestions of corporeality, continue, even after it is clear that we are very much talking about the other.
‘To depict a (bicycle) you must first come to love (it)’ Alexander Blok
I swear by every rule in the bicycle
that I love you, I, who have repeatedly,
with accompanying declarations of despair,
tried to repair
you, to patch things up,
to maintain a workable relationship.
I have spent sleepless nights
in pondering your parts – those private
and those that all who walk the street
may look at –
wondering what makes you tick
over smoothly, or squeak.
O my trusty steed,
my rusty three-speed,
I would feed you the best oats
Only linseed oil
to nourish you.
so much to paint
and standing as you do, ironic
at the rail
provided by the Council –
the sun caught in your back wheel –
or at home in the hall, remarkable
among other bicycles,
your handlebars erect.
Allow me to depict
you thus. And though I can’t do justice
to your true opinion of the surface
of the road –
put into words
the nice distinctions that you make
among the different sorts of tarmac –
still I’d like to set the record of our travels straight.
I’d have you know that
not with three-in-one
but with my own
spittle I anoint your moving parts.
So finally to Michael Laskey, whose ‘Bike’ opens with a similar ambiguity to Allnutt’s ‘Ode’. It also contains some of the same flavours as Donaghy’s ‘Machines’: it juxtaposes the ‘pure / purposeful geometry’ of the bicycle with the ‘bearlike, cumbersome’ messiness of, in this case, the poet. They are an ‘odd pair’, yet they keep each other’s balance. Balance, there again. There is the acquisition of knowledge, too, as in ‘Ode’, but it is through the bike that Laskey has come to know, rather than the bike itself that he has tried, with or without success, to understand. And by its wheel has he known plenty. The world he describes is fecund, juicy, plentiful, and full of berries and booze. The bike lets him let go. So it is, so has it been.
You, who have borne three sons
of mine, still bear my weight
routinely, transporting me.
An odd pair: your classic spare
lines – elbows, bony frame –
and me, bearlike, cumbersome,
nosing tangled coils of air
you cut through with your pure
With you it’s feet off the ground,
a feat passing unremarked
though in full public view.
Keeping each other’s balance.
Our talk slow recurrent clicks,
Through you I’ve come to know
winds inside out and raw
weather ignored before;
and nuances of slopes,
the moving earth, green tracks
for blackberries and sloes
for gin, for jam: the tug
and tang of fruit pulling me
clear of the wheel of myself.
We hope you enjoy this selection of cycling poems. And, if you’d like to follow Laura and me as we wend our way eastwards, we’ll be posting updates on our joint Instagram account (@onourbicycles). And / or subscribe to my blog at onurbicycle.com where you’ll find longer form posts than social media will permit, as well as the occasional poem or short story.