To Feel How Words Move, Memorize a Poem

and recite it while running

Exercises for turning to poetry when pandemics hit.

1: Think of a Sheep Knitting a Sweater

Cases of COVID-19 have begun surfacing in Minnesota and you made the mistake of reading a twitter thread about symptoms and difficulty breathing and ventilators while you have a cold or allergies or something that is making your throat tighten and breathing difficult. You want to feel something other than petrified.

Step One || Pick a poem.

Start with Franz Wright’s “Auto-lullaby” and the opening stanza:

Think of a sheep
knitting a sweater;
think of your life
getting better and better.

Step Two || Memorize it.

Step Three || Recite it while running.

Step Four || 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: It’s 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?

bonus: Write out the rhythms using musical notation.

Poems Memorized/Dates

2: It’s all green really, even the red is anti-green

It is spring and you can still get outside during the shelter-in-place, but the trail right above the river is crowded and it is too hard to keep a safe distance from other walkers and runners there. You must run on the road, farther from the water, with only the growing green for a view. It is thick and spreading and seems ready to consume everything, even the air.

3: Any open space can be a threshold, an arch of entering and leaving

It is almost June and you’ve been running on West River Parkway, Edmund Boulevard, and the wide patch of grass between them instead of on the trail right above the river for over two months. The short time each day you are running here (or walking with your husband and dog) is the only time you are outside of your home and in the midst of other people. This place, bordered by the river on one side, Longfellow neighborhood on the other, is saving you.

4: I beg of you, do not pass by without stopping to attend to this rather ridiculous performance

It is hot. It is humid. It is uncomfortable running in the thick of summer. You are tired of the bugs, the unrelenting green, the continuous waves of sinus infections, the politicizing of mask wearing, the endless pictures on Facebook of people pretending the pandemic is over. You need the birds to bring more distraction.

Step One || Pick a few poems about the color green (2), doors (3), birds (4), eyes (5) or listening (6).

Step Two || Memorize one of the poems every couple of days.

Step Three || Recite the poem while running.

Step Four || Once the poem is yours, get lost in it.

Ruminate on what type of grief greenness is in Philip Larkin’s “The Trees,” then compare it to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ grief as golden grove unleaving. Look for Ada Limón’s fuchsia funnels in the neighborhood trees as you run. Pick a word like root, in Katie Farris’s “What Would Root” and reflect on what it means throughout the poem. Search for Maggie Smith’s door you can be on both sides at once. Try to hold onto landscape in your head (“Voiceover”). Find out what gambrels (“I Dwell”) and a red picture hat (“I Remember”) are. Ask yourself why you prefer open doors (“Doors”) and then where those doors might lead (“Praying”). Notice and find delight in ridiculous performances you witness as you move by the gorge (“Invitation”). Accumulate images in your consciousness (“Crows”). Listen for those geese, high in the clean blue sky and then, when you hear them, stop on the sidewalk and exclaim to your dog, “The geese have returned!” Reminisce about visiting fabric stories when you were young and picking out Butterick patterns for your mom to sew (“Turkey Vultures”). Think about how your eyes, with their damaged cones, cannot scour anything (“Perhaps You Tire”). Imagine your soul upon (or opon) the window pane. What can she see (“Before I got my eyes”)?

Step Five || Record yourself reciting the poem into your phone.

Test your memory and your ability to overcome your self-consciousness by reciting the poem into your phone as you walk back home. Later, listen to the recording while looking at the poem, noticing any wrong words or missing lines.

Poems Memorized/Date

GREEN (Entries describing running while reciting green poems.)

DOORS (Entries describing running while reciting door poems.)

BIRDS (Entries describing running while reciting bird poems.)

LOVING EYE/ARROGANT EYE (Entries describing running while reciting eye poems.)

  • Before I got my eyes put out/Emily Dickinson // July 5, 2020
  • Natural Forces/Victor Huidobro //
  • I Look Up From My Book and Out at the World Through Reading Glasses/ Diane Seuss //
  • Halos/Ed Bok Lee //