Welcome to Week Six of the class! For this last lecture, I’ll do two things. First, I’ll highlight an activity that I added a few years into my practice that has not only been enjoyable, but has opened up new ways for me to pay attention to the world: memorizing a poem before going outside, then reciting it in my head while moving. Then, I’ll offer a few suggestions on what to do with your new habit of moving outside and writing about it.
Part One: Memorizing a Poem
Throughout this class, I’ve been incorporating the words of poets — Mary Oliver, Ross Gay, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jane Hirshfield, Emily Dickinson, Ada Limón — into my lectures about wonder and attention. I have done this partly because it has been through poetry that I’ve learned to find more wonder in the world, and partly because I wanted to give you some examples of what it might mean to take up the running writer George Sheehan’s suggestion to use your time moving outside to be a poet, for an hour a day, open to everything.
Now, here, in the last week of class, I’ll offer another way to bring more poetry into your noticing and to learn how to be a poet while you’re moving: memorize a poem, then recite it while you run.
Why Memorize a Poem?
There are many reasons to memorize a poem and recite it to yourself while you’re outside and in motion. First, it can distract you or calm you down, giving you something to focus on other than how hard you’re working or what worries you’re having. For the first month of the pandemic, as I anxiously ran outside trying to stay far away from others, I memorized then recited several poems. One of my favorites was Franz Wright’s “Auto-lullaby,” which begins with the wonderful lines:
Think of a sheep
knitting a sweater;
think of your life
getting better and better.
As I ran, I repeated this poem again and again. I listened to the words, then tried to match my cadence to them. And I imagined sheep knitting sweaters and it made me feel better.
Second, the lines can provide you with some mantras to repeat that enable you to be more present on the path or that help you to enter a dreamy state. One of my favorite mantras to repeat comes from Richard Siken’s delightfully strange poem, “Lovesong for the Square Root of Negative One.” I especially liked reciting it on windy days:
I am the wind and the wind is invisible, all the leaves
tremble but I am invisible.
Third, the acts of memorizing the poem then remembering it as you recite it are energizing and a fun challenge.
Fourth, in terms of learning the craft of poetry, memorizing then reciting a poem enables you to spend more time with that poem and really become familiar with it — its rhythms and pace, how it moves and breathes, the meaning and effects of its words, and what works in it (or doesn’t) and how and why.
For example, in a July 19th, 2020 entry for my movement log, I wrote about how struggling to remember a few parts of Marie Howe’s “The Gate,” as I recited it during my run, allowed me to reflect on why she choose the words she did:
For the rest of my run, I recited “The Gate” by Marie Howe in my head. There were a few lines that I couldn’t remember exactly–was it “the gate I would step through” or “walk through”, “the world” or “this world”, “holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich” or just “holding my cheese and mustard sandwich”? I thought about the differences in meaning and rhythm that these word choices might make. Then I started thinking about the line, “having folded every sheet, rinsed every glass he would ever rinse.” At first I couldn’t remember what he had folded–was it a towel, a shirt, a sheet? Then, I remembered sheet and I thought about the subtle differences in meaning between folding a sheet — evoking the intimate space of a bedroom — versus a shirt or a towel. Did Howe immediately think of sheet, or did she deliberate over different choices before settling on it? It was fun to spend some time reflecting on word choice as I ran. I love how packed and precise poetry is, and often in ways that aren’t readily visible but that you can feel as you read it–even when you don’t realize you’re feeling it.”
Fifth, it helps you to build up your store of words and metaphors, giving you more ways, often better ones, to translate the wonder you experience while outside and in motion into words. In her article, “My Hundred,” the poet/teacher Beth Ann Fennelly describes it this way:
We each have a language store, and when we memorize poetry, we’re expanding it, building new shelves and stocking them with quality merchandise. If we don’t memorize poetry, our shallow shelves are still being stocked, but with the shoddy stuff foisted on us by popular culture. Plop, plop. Fizz. Fizz. “
Sixth, when you learn a poem by heart, you can take it with you and use it whenever you need it. Like the poet Paige Lewis suggests in an interview for VS. podcast, you might need it to transform the mundane moments of your day:
How lovely to just have it in my brain so then when I’m standing in line at the post office, I cannot be thinking about the fact that I’m standing in line at the post office and I can just recite a poem in my head.
Or, you might need it to feel less alone, to connect your feelings and words to a larger community of people who have paid attention and then written poetry about it:
Knowing poetry by heart can serve every day’s most quiet need. The homage of our attention on some aspect of the world, suddenly aligning across time with the homage of someone else’s attention. The moment cross hatched, enriched by the perspective of someone who’s thought through it deeply and stated it powerfully (My Hundred/ Beth Ann Fennelly).
And finally, here’s a seventh reason: Learning poems by heart, and then bringing those poems with you as you move, not only can improve your attention skills, but it can open more doors to wonder. The poet Ada Limón, host of the Slowdown podcast and our next U.S. post laureate!, says this about poetry and wonder:
that’s what poetry is. It doesn’t just point out the world. It makes it strange to us again. So that we can remember wonder (What is Enough for a Poem).
Makes it strange again. Bringing the words of poetry with you as you move can help you to experience the world differently, strangely, magically, as more than mundane. It might help you to see new things on your regular route, or to see old things in new ways. Here’s an example from a running log entry from May 14, 2020, which happens to involve a beautiful poem by Ada Limón, “Instructions on Not Giving Up.”
Sitting on the deck, repeating the first line over and over –- “More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out of the crabapple tree” “More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out of the crabapple tree” –- I wasn’t thinking at all about the fuchsia funnels breaking out of the big crabapple tree in my backyard. This year, the blossoms are exceptional. It wasn’t until I was out walking through the neighborhood with Scott and Delia the dog, looking at the brightly colored flowers on the trees, that I realized that I had some fuchsia funnels in my backyard, that they were all around the neighborhood! I love how memorizing these poems helps me to spend more time with them and to acquire better words for the world around me. I wouldn’t have thought to describe the flowers as fuchsia funnels, but it really fits. Now, as I walk around the neighborhood, all I can see is one fuchsia funnel after another.
An Activity: Memorize a poem, then recite in while you move.
Pick a poem, or a part of a poem. Maybe it’s one of your favorite poems, or it’s about something that you recently noticed that brings you delight, or you read it once and decided you wanted to spend more time with it.
Sit down somewhere that’s quiet. Read the first line several times. Recite it again and again until it’s yours. Do the same thing with the next line, and the next, until you know the entire poem by heart.
Practice reciting it — to a family member, your dog, the mirror, into a smart phone.
Go outside and move. Begin reciting your poem.
Sync it up. Pay attention to how the words do or don’t match up with your cadence and your breathing. If they don’t, try syncing them up. How does this affect the poem: Its meaning? How it sounds, feels? How it moves or doesn’t move? Conversely, how does this affect your cadence, breathing, and how easily you move?
Or, instead syncing it up, think about the words and images in the poem. What do they do to how you experience your route? How do they make it strange, unfamiliar, less mundane?
Or, instead of syncing it up, or thinking about the words, just recite the poem as many times as you can, and be open to what happens.
This exercise might take some practice, especially if you’re moving fast while you recite it. And it doesn’t always work, or work they ways you intend it to. When I’m running and reciting, I can become distracted and never make it past the first verse! But, having poems with you as you move can be magical and transformative and help you as a writer, a thinker, and a poet who is open to everything, for at least 60 minutes a day.
Here’s a recent example from my log. Earlier this spring, on an especially windy day, I memorized this poem, then recited it as I ran:
Who Has Seen the Wind/ Christina Rossetti
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
Part Two: What to do next
In the lecture for week one, I offered the following explanation for the class:
My project began as something fairly simple: train for a marathon and write about. As it grew, I took on many more goals: learning to notice, to slow down, to find delight; searching for better words for describing what I think about when I’m running, how I experience that dreamy state mid-motion; and devoting more attention to poetry. I don’t approach any of my goals directly, but wander between them, experimenting with new ways to build on them. It’s messy and exuberant, and what makes it work is the structure and discipline of my small, steady practice: I go outside and move. While I’m moving, I try to pay attention. Then, I return home and write about it. I play around with this habit in many different ways, but the basic structure stays the same. This structure helps tether me to the world and to a larger purpose and intent. This class is designed to give you a chance to try out this basic structure and see how it might work for you.
Go outside, move.
Pay attention while moving.
Be open to wonder.
Write about it in a movement log.
Each week you had the opportunity to practice this structure at least 3 times. And each week, I offered ideas, a few poems, some possible activities, a brief reading or two, and some examples from my movement log to supplement the building of your practice. Even as I hoped some of these supplemental materials would be inspiring as you tried to establish a new practice, I also envisioned them as being resources for the future, as you build on your practice. To that end, when the class is over, all of the lessons, including lectures, activities, resources, readings, and everything else will be available for you to download and read and refer to whenever you need it.
To add to those resources, I’ll offer a few more ideas here, specifically about what to do now that you have established your new practice.
First, a simple answer: keep practicing, using a method that you’ve established in these 6 weeks. Keep making lists of 10 Things You Noticed. This might be enough to help you find wonder in the world.
Second, keep experimenting. As your practice becomes more established, try new ways of paying attention. Try some of the activities I’ve suggested throughout the weeks, or something from the list, An Abridged List of Activities/Prompts/Experiments, that I’ve added to this lesson, like:
When out running or walking by the gorge, listen to the “Look!” you are offered by another kind walker wanting to point out a soaring eagle or a drumming downy woodpecker. Later, offer your own “Look!” to someone else (see may 3, 2021).
or: Write about something that happened during the middle of your run–not at the beginning or the end, but the middle (see nov 27, 2019).
And third, find some new ways into the words. Instead of making lists of 10 Things You Noticed, or describing your walk or run in straight paragraphs, try something new:
Write an acrostic poem. Pick a word or a phrase related to your walk or run, and make each letter of that word the first letter of the line of a poem. This might never lead to a brilliant poem, but it’s a great way into words, and it might lead you in unexpected directions.
Here’s an early example from my running log:
H ave you ever said,
U nder your breath, in the
M iddle of your run,
I really don’t like humidity & humidity heard you & replied: Well, I
D on’t like you either!
I am going to make you even more miserable because of your
T houghtless comment!
Y esterday I think that happened to me.
Describe your walk or your run or your route through an Abecedarian poem or essay. It’s 26 lines long.The first line begins with A, then each line that follows starts with the next letter of the alphabet. To make it even harder, start with Z and go backwards. Even harder than that? A double abecedarian: each line begins with the alphabet as it moves from A to Z, each line ends with the alphabet as it moves from Z to A!
I’ve had a lot of fun with this form! Here’s one about swimming and seeing: A poem about how to Be when you Cannot see
Take a sentence from your entry that you want to work on. Keep writing it over and over again until you like how it sounds. Write as many versions as you need to. I think I’ve averaged around 7 or 8.
Example: The Runner’s High, 7 Versions
Questions: How have you been able to establish a new practice? How will you build on it?