Few things can stir up the senses like travel. In its absence, there’s the equally sensory business of poetry. “To travel far, there is no better ship than the book,” American poet Emily Dickinson had once observed—doubly true, when it’s a book of good travel poetry. Verses, marinated in the vivid wonder or greasy blues of a poet’s mind, can take you places. You can be in your ill-ventilated kitchen, scowling at yesterday’s dinner, and at once in the Irish countryside, where lake water laps with “low sound by the shore” (Lake Isle of Innisfree, W.B. Yeats). Now more than ever, we can count on these tickets to virtual getaways. Here are 10 travel poems to get your mind back on the road, until your feet can.
Set in the rumbling rhythm of the train journey it describes, Scottish novelist and well-known wanderer Robert Stevenson’s poem captures that incredible feeling of watching sceneries flash by from a train window. It uses simple, rhyming words to create a sense of motion, as a hazy parade of pastoral scenery—painted stations, rivers, an idle tramp, a boy collecting brambles—is revealed to the rapt narrator, before they’re “gone forever”.
Read it For: The childhood thrill of watching the world zoom by.
If Stevenson’s poem puts your head in a spin, Field calms it down, leading it to the slow enchantment of a seaside holiday, preferably on an island. The 20th century American poet and children’s author talks about the seemingly nondescript act of falling asleep on an island, and how it alters one’s being forever. Field, who spent many a summer inhaling the briny waters of the Canary Isles, claims, “You may look as you looked the day before/ And go by the same old name,” but back home, in the bustle of street shops and distracted chats with neighbours, you’ll only have ears for the “ship whistle and lighthouse bell”.
Read it for: The borrowed cadence of island life.
Louis MacNiece’s ode to the English city is a meticulous blueprint of urban cacophony, come alive in his intense, visual vocabulary. In a wink, the reader slips into Birmingham of the ’30s, a smoky haze of “insipid colour, patches of emotion, Saturday thrills”. The Irish poet lived in the city from 1930-1936, where he found friendship in his Oxford acquaintance and British-American poet W.H. Auden. MacNeice describes in feverish detail: gutters that “take” with their flow “old playbills”, shopgirls relaxing after lunch-hour rush, and trams “like vast sacrophagi” moving towards plum skies of sunset.
Read it for: The reminder that the muck and magic of city life are wholly inseparable.
A different kind of a city poem, Mandalay is fraught with Whiteman’s exoticism of the Orient and an unmistakable imperial gaze, but there’s no denying its tantalizing descriptions. Echoing a cockney soldier’s longing for his lady love in faraway Burma—a colonial protectorate where he was once deployed—it draws sensuous portraits of cities and spaces. In lines such as “When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow / Sh’d git ’er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo–lo!””, you can see, hear and feel Kipling’s fascination with the land of palm trees, hathis, flyin-fish and tinkly temple bells. Although the poem does not offer the girl, Supi-yaw-lat, much character beyond her identity as the narrator’s object of affection, its richness lies in its acute characterisations of cities. London, in contrast to the “sunshine” of Mandalay, is built of “gritty pavin’-stones” where the “blasted English drizzle wakes the fever” in bones. Apparently, the melodic verses are a reflection of Kipling’s time as a young soldier in India, during which he travelled to Burma and fell violently in love with it.
Read it for: Visions of a different place, a different time.
The source of the generously quoted line “And miles to go before I sleep”, Robert Lee Frost’s ruminations on travelling through white woodlands offers some of the starkest descriptions of winter nature. If you are looking to summon memories of your trip to the Himalayas or the Chilean Andes where tall spectres of pine-shaped snow had stunned and scared you equally, this is your poem. First you’ll give yourself the jitters, imagining the neigh of a confused horse, the glint of a frozen lake, and the leafy blackness of cold, cold evening closing in on a traveller. Then, you’ll yearn for it.
Read it for: A bit of mystery and a blast of cold in your living room.
Yet another poem about forests, and falling asleep in the lap of nature. But what traveller can refuse woods and sky visions, painted with “white fire of the stars” and “pockets full of lichen”? For those who love nature poetry but cannot relate to the high flourish of the Romantics, this 1972 poem might bridge the gap. Focusing on conversations with nature stripped of postmodern unrest, Oliver, who passed away in 2019, was a poet of deep meditation. A sparse style works to capture the sublime quality of Oliver’s affection for the Earth that “remembers”—that living, breathing presence with her kingdom of birds and insects.
Read it for: Peace, transcendent.
Hearthside isn’t about the act of travelling, but our irrepressible ache for it. We’ve all been in Parker’s shoes. Haven’t you, on a dead-end day, dreamed of lands “halfway across the world”, of “older water” and “deeper skies”, wondering if you’ll ever make it to the ancient isles of Homer and Sappho? This is a poem that sounds decidedly doleful, perhaps even final its resignation—“Best to sit and watch the snow / Turn the lock, and poke the fire.” —but a closer inspection will reveal that it makes a case for the bittersweet reprieve of mind-travel, if only inadvertently. There are days when we can travel and there are days when we can’t. On the last kind, it’s all right to let your thoughts and desires “stray”.
Read it for: The reminder that we are lucky to travel.
It would be a shame to have any appreciation of this poem run longer than the poem itself, all of two lines. If you’re a flâneur who contemplates crowds and notices the minutiae of life, these lines are as much yours as they are the American poet’s.
Read it for: The love of people-watching and startling imagery.
Ellen Bass’s is a contemporary voice that is wonderfully ‘female’. The 73-year-old poet who grew up in New Jersey mixes the triumph of airport hellos with the wistfulness of transit points, as the narrator watches a middle-aged couple at gate C22 in Portalnd airport kiss “lavish kisses”. She’s not the only one to gape and gape at this reunion between two traditionally imperfect lovers—the man has a gray beard and his love some extra pounds —“passengers waiting for the delayed flight to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots, the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling sunglasses”, nobody can look away. One could get away with calling Gate C22 a love poem, but for those who are familiar with the fleetingness of airports, bus stops and railway stations, it is about the predictable unpredictability of travel. A moment at the airport will always be transient, but sometimes, it’s as much your destination.
Read it for: An encounter with your own airport memories.
Forever straddling the jovial and the profound, Billy Collins sums up the essence of travel in this winking-with-wit poem. 79-year-old Collins, known for his conversational style, talks about the wonky luck of a traveller whose memorable travel frames are, in millennial-speak, royally photobombed. No shots of bridges, famous plazas and bronze statues seem to escape the tyranny of “the odd pedestrian”, or “a bright café awning”. Instgrammable is certainly not an adjective for the desperate attempts of his shutter. But as it would turn out, in the wisdom of age, the narrator realises that he is a far luckier traveller for having been a luckless photographer. For it is the seemingly insignificant fragments of memories—“the back of raincoat”, “a towering hairdo”, “a shoulder” —that hold the ticket back to his youthful summer.
Read it for: A tongue-in-cheek lesson in the importance of small things.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.