The Long Poem of Walking

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 25, No 1 (Winter 2014)

Eric Ellingsen
Looking for new ways to map space — and for literature to inform urban design — Berlin-based architect Eric Ellingsen decided to co-opt the repeating structure of the poetic villanelle. The experiments he describes initially took place in the fall of 2008, when he taught a graduate landscape architecture studio at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
The long poem of walking manipulates spatial organizations . . . in other words, it is like a peddler, saying something surprising, transverse, or attractive compared with the usual choice.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life


The surveyors’ paradox. We arrive at the North Branch Trail System in North Chicago, Illinois. Our goal was to net the messy silhouettes of relationships measuring the place as systems of phenomenal material processes. Our goal was not to make a map to tell us where to go, but rather, what to do, maybe why to do it.

We try not to be there ahead of time, so we don’t look at pictures or maps. Architects and landscape architects, like any other tourists, usually carry cameras, those false Romeos delivering flat, depthless promises, instruments that usually only allow us to see what we’re already looking for. Lazy eyes.

What is your measuring stick? Bending, I hope, like Emily Dickinson’s true truth that slants. We know that fixing a line from a fallen tree to the edge of a river is only slightly more reliable as a form of measurement than sticking our hands into a cloud with a ruler, plumb-bobbing our way to a few damp figures. All we might really get is wet. So we look for a different metric. Everything is mobile in a mobile element, as Jules Verne said. . . . Note: we experience both places and poems through our bodies. We are spatiotemporal; our bodies come in handy in these moving places.

While in the North Branch Trail System we are also in the street. The street is in the park. The park is the street. The park is never merely the geographical footprint and boundary lines of grasses and greens and grays that a map pulpits. (This is the first preaching measure we must defeat with our feet.) Instead, the boundaries are the birds, which propagate the seeds of tall grasses in shit, the dispersal methods of anything carried by Wallace Stevens’s wind and wet and wing. We become avid surveyors of the near and far.

Enter into our mapping experiment, the villanelle. We choose the villanelle because of its repeating refrains. It is a tool that helps us transform the body into measuring instrument. We choose the villanelle because the same word repeated is never the same word. We choose the villanelle because the immediate local context changes the meaning of anything, because of the reexperienced memory of the sounds. We choose the villanelle because the first “I” in the second line didn’t love her by then; by the thirteenth line, the “I” was in a love that lasted just shy of forever. Landscape and cities are built on the rhythm of repetition of the same things differently: the same species of a tree or hedge, grass, or type of stone in different parts of a park; paving patterns; curtain walls. All rhythm implies you move, so it was a villanelle we used from one next to the next next to the next next.

The important point in using literature to inform architecture or urban design lies in the transference of the structure of the work, rather than the transference of the metaphor.


The North Branch Trail System, Cook County, Illinois. Twenty miles. Chicago River. Skokie lagoons. Solid, urban, broad-shouldered, Midwest built; ecosystems muscled around. A wavy swath just a bit wider than the grass that grows through the cracks in the city grid. A twenty-mile bike trail follows the river, lacing the diverse urban communities together like a considerate zipper. Canoes. Picnics. Golf courses. Fences. Streets bisect the trails. Bikes cross perpendicular to the streets, otherwise hairpin turns, long stretches, slipshod signage for what’s ahead, a watershed that floods out the path. Urban-warfare armature, placed to discourage husking hot dog wrappers and empty sixers being thrown onto the hood of the cars flowing by underneath. The stream. The bikes. The walkers. All things a-flowing, percolating, like Michel Serres says of time. A collection of well-concealed enclaves behind parking lots for love of all kinds in all kinds of ways at all times of day or night.

The goal of these experiments was measurement by experienced movement. The villanelle is used as a tool, an apparatus of capture, an operative strategy of constraints in order to help amplify the park as a process of flows you can feel, of nature and culture in rates of material change that embroil perception and experience.

Editorial note: The villanelle, derived from French and Italian pastoral poetry, is a theme-and-variation verse form consisting of five tercets and a concluding quatrain, with two lines repeating throughout the poem and an aba . . . abaa rhyme scheme. The most famous twentieth-century example is Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night” (1951), with its repetition of the opening line and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Here is an algorithm showing a classic villanelle:

Refrain 1 (A1)
Line 2 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 4 (a)
Line 5 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 7 (a)
Line 8 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 10 (a)
Line 11 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)

Line 13 (a)
Line 14 (b)
Refrain 2 (A2)

Line 16 (a)
Line 17 (b)
Refrain 1 (A1)
Refrain 2 (A2)


Eat the poems: learn them by heart, practice recitation. “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. / There is no happiness like mine. / I have been eating poetry” (Mark Strand). The words work on the mechanisms of body like absinthe, intoxicant, alien, a kind of frustrated, possessed control. Anticipation comes into play, identification, an intuitive dexterity that allows you to move without handrails, change your speed and concentration. Use the poems from the inside out.

The poems we ate: Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”; Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”; Sylvia Plath, “Mad Girl’s Love Song”; Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night”; W. H. Auden, “Villanelle.”

Trees mean canopies, leaves as eaves; mean shadows (shadows are things that mean changes in temporal gradients), mean soil stability; mean different ground cover; mean ”O” and ”A” horizons in the dark organic humus; mean biomantle; mean earthworms; mean a seasonal palate of fall colors on the ground that crunch for a few weeks in fall; mean the path has to go a few feet to the right or left because of the root ball; mean the river flows differently; mean seeing sky; mean pupils dilating (which your eyes also do when you see something of interest); mean drip line, mean a living, acoustic baffle from the urban highway (half the year); mean an olfactory filter blocking the backyard barbecues; mean branches, which also mean a scaffolding for icicles; mean a zenith of nuts and nests; mean a place to lean your bike up against and do whatever, maybe neck.

A poem is a coat made entirely out of pockets, each word a pocket, and some pockets come with things, those constantly flowing correlatives. But all things are processes, as artist Ólafur Elíasson says. Changing, dynamic plateaus; before, after, and middle depends on the way you experience measure. A heavy thing in one pocket makes the next thing lighter, or heavier, like contrasts in color, as Joseph Albers noted, or spatial relations like the ”checker-shadow relation.” One pocket always changes the pocket next to it, just like half a dam changes the whole river.

Every poem, like every place, is a system of constraints, a choreography of contracts renegotiated in experiencing these constraints, like breathing, systems pulling and pushing that we punch at when we read the poem out loud or walk through the park city.


Please start by constructing in clear sketches and thoughtful, analytical notational form, a map. Map the entire poem line by line. In other words, respect the line breaks and preserve the syntactical integrity of the poem itself, the prosodic relationships. This is background check information, as if the poem and place were applying for a position in Your Central Intelligence Agency, a Department of Your Interior. Make ten copies of the poem you are learning by heart. Get out your markers, your pencils, your scribbling ideas.

Perhaps start with the low-hanging fruit, the rhymes at the end of the lines, the last words, the asymmetrical shadows.

In Roethke’s “The Waking,” there is one more going than go. There is sleep but no sleeping. Hear but no hearing. Taking but no take. Learn but no learning. How will you make the audible visible? Review, but don’t copy, what rhythms Broodthaers adds to see Mallarmé. Note in line two of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Saying age shapes the mouth hotly, like biting on hot peppers. Say old and the mouth volcanoes as it is forced to curl out into the syllables. The shape the mouth makes in reading the poem always dances the words unless mumbling around.


Space is a relation of change. (1) There is an Eskimo custom of letting an angry person walk a straight line to conquer their anger spatially, planting a stick in the ground when their anger runs out. The stake “bears witness to the strength or length of the rage” (Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking). (2) In his performance piece the Loser / the Winner, artist Francis Alÿs attaches an end of his sweater to something (a fence, a rock, a telephone pole, a lover’s heart). He walks the city until his entire sweater is unraveled; his map entangles with the city, body, urban furniture, snags, people, machines. (3) The Manhattan skyline. Up until the arrival of innovations in floating structural foundations in the 1960s, the tops of skyscrapers inadvertently served as a measure and map of the geological bedrocks beneath the city. The building’s foundations had to reach bedrock and so the more out of reach the bedrock, the lower the tops of the buildings. In Manhattan, in looking at sky one can see under the earth.

Every walk is a dance with place. Become conscious of it and you are starting to measure.

EXPERIMENT (3): the dance

Raising your right leg once to walk forward probably means you are going somewhere, perhaps to a door, and the gesture (raising the leg) passes unnoticed. But if you raise your leg in precisely the same way a few times more, it becomes noticeable — and you are probably not walking but dancing.
— Kenneth Koch

To the poem you have eaten you add: pivot 90 degrees to the right when first person is used.

To the poem you have eaten you add: when the past tense is used, hop once. Add: walk as slow as you possibly can, take nineteen hours to walk nineteen lines — walk for an entire night, you will remember that walk for your entire life. Add to the poem you have eaten a pause at each caesura. Lie down every time there is a comma. Bend your body ninety degrees at the hip like you are greeting a Japanese emperor every time there is a capital letter. All memory is physical. Real your memories.

Remember the topological logic of Stravinsky, how he says in Poetics of Music that “music moving faster changes the tempo not the rhythm because the relationships of the notes remains intact.”

Think about what aspect of the park changes from day to day while remaining intact from season to season? Which aspects of the poem change while remaining the same? Which aspects of yourself, or a place?

Note when your body bends to a slope. Note how your weight shifts. Note where you counterthrust or plant yourself for added stability. Note when you raise your arms to add balance. Note what your eyes do when you step into a spot of sunlight. Note your pupils. Note the poplar tree with a heart and “LE + EP” carved into it near the oxbow in the stream is two lines of Plath away from the path. This is a place of lovers.

Notice and reject all doggerel.

On a slope, in a park, can you have perpendicular inclinations? If so, you are like all other living organisms, as biologist Stewart Kauffman points out. Living systems orient themselves perpendicular to the flows of energy, like weather vanes on a windmill, build themselves up cell by cell.

You are an emotional machine, but you are also a double pendulum, arms swinging, legs swinging, a body being pitched about two centers while you are moving — center of gravity and center of moment. The body fitting into the poem; the poem stretching the body into the place. The emotional relationship from a memorable walk crystallizes a memory with a place and body. An emotional relationship has feelings. Feeling is the crucis part of the experimentum crucis. Care, the lost Heideggerian concept. Care: a good instrument for making maps and taking measure. Care matters.

What if a line break is seven days long? Happens all the time.


We made 2-D and 3-D models, models we could use to map and measure our trajectories within the North Branch Trail System as bodies of knowledge. First, we transcribed our dances into notational systems: circles, ellipses, lines, waves, dashes — marks of all kinds. Each symbol was elastic, like a topographical sheet of rubber, stretching and bending as the body moved with the poem into the place. The models were like scores, but our bodies were the instruments we played.

Note Poincaré’s distinction between representational and relational images: Representational images are snapshot descriptions of the system; they show what you look like in some amount of detail in an instant of time. Relational images, on the other hand, allow an understanding of the relationships that cause a system to behave in a certain way. They communicate not what a system looks like at any point of time, but the constraints and forces that pressure the system. The latter communicates the behavior of the system as process, the former looks at the system as product, a finished thing.

As we moved and measured our way as the space, we collected objects, the flotsam and jetsam of different ways of looking, of different trajectories. Our mind stretched into the place where our measures led us; by experiencing the place differently, we became different kinds of designers.

We called these objects objectiles: ticks, leaves, sticks, garbage, mud, muck. We cast them in plaster and after, using large scroll saws, we cut the cast into slices, like pieces of bread from a loaf you would only want to eat if it was poetry. We called these slices moments. Each moment was placed back into the park, like a baseball base, a small material tag flagging the trajectory as a kind of litmus to mark and simultaneously record the place. The dances could be practiced between these bases as the place changed, forcing our movements to change little by little, as the bases forced us to be conscious of these changes. The place as process itself also impacted the cast slices. Ice, rain, bike treads, animals, mud slides, erosion. All nouns are verbs. The casts became small apparatuses of capture netting time and process. (Near the end of the studio, these fractured moments were re-collected and used as parts in final models.)

The goal of the experiment was to be conscious of things as processes that you process into along the way. Apperception, as landscape architect Ian McHarg says, is the goal — that is, being conscious of being conscious. Seeing by looking at seeing a little differently. Acting our analysis is the goal. Experiencing our experiments is the goal. The art and the architecture is the experience, not the object. Experiencing the body as the most exact scientific instrument, as Goethe said, is the goal. Our goals are to communicate the tendencies of the systems in motion with each other, against one another, the shifting dynamic boundaries across which energy flows and material cycles. Our bodies as bodies of knowledge, that is the goal, our bodies as systems of care. Good experiments (and poems) are boomerangs. The nuances of where the stick is held, or how hard it is thrown, all of these change the range of flight paths. There are ways of throwing experiments that allow them to return with something, something unplanned, promiscuous, emotional, intimate, embodied. When finished, the experiments did not look like the poem, but the park did not look like it did when we first arrived.

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