Poetry in Motion

March 13, 2017 | 2 books mentioned 2 7 min read

“Running, friends, is boring,” to tweak a line from John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. I’ve been boring myself — that is, running regularly — for more than 20 years now, competitively, then somewhat competitively, then by-no-stretch-of-the-imagination competitively. It’s a generally invigorating but lonely endeavor. Gone are the days when I hit the trails with boisterous teammates, and only rarely do I jog with running companions (otherwise known, somewhat euphemistically, as friends). And as for musical accompaniment? Never, not so much for purist reasons — “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” etc. — but because I fear that if I rely even once on an up-beat song to get me through a run, I’ll never be able to lace up without an iPod again.

coverThus deprived of the pleasurable distraction of conversation, as well the pulsating beats of pop music, I’ve had ample time over the course of thousands of runs to think. Or not to think. Or, as I’ve started doing over the past couple years, reciting poetry to pass the time.

There is a tradeoff involved. Moving fast is surprisingly difficult while sputter forth spondees between gasps for air. Some verses, though, causes me to drag my feet more than others. Reciting the metaphysical poets costs me about a minute per mile, not to mention attracting some strange looks from passersby, especially when John Donne is involved: “It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,/ And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.” Gerard Manley Hopkins easily trips up the tongue and brings all progress to a halt: “Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” Wallace Stevens lifts my spirits but lowers my speed: “Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one/ And bid him whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” Hard to dip under seven-minute pace reciting that. (Then again, the record for running a mile while chugging a beer before each lap is currently 4:39, so anything’s possible.)

But speed and prosody can go hand in hand, or rather foot over foot. Extolling the beauty of a bonnie lass in ballad meter (Robert Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose”); or giving oneself over to the pulsating majesty of William Blake’s “The Tyger” or the laconic stoicism of Robert Frost’s traveler (“And miles to go before I sleep”); or eulogizing A.E. Housman’s young athlete in sprightly tetrameter — “Smart lad to slip betimes away,/ From fields where glory does not stay” — only costs me about 20 to 30 seconds per mile. (Still too slow, sadly, to win my town the race.)

I reserve John Keats for long runs on secluded trails, when I can take my time with the great odes. What pleasant running companions are satiated (if a tad lethargic) Autumn, “sitting careless on a granary floor,/ Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;” the cheerleading nightingale, “pouring forth thy soul abroad/ In such an ecstasy!”; alluring Melancholy, whose “sovereign shrine” is in the “very temple of delight;” and the frustrated Attic youth in his perpetual mad pursuit: “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss/ Though winning near the goal…” I give a little performance of “La belle dame sans merci” as well, usually at the end of a 14-miler when, haggard and woebegone, I most resemble those “pale kings and princes too/ pale warriors…their starved lips in the gloam/ With horrid warning gaping wide.”

I should clarify that both to avoid attention and the psych ward, I generally mutter rather than sing the words. Only rarely do other people notice the impromptu plein air reading they are unwittingly attending. Yet at times I do unleash my inner scop in all his stentorian glory. I generally restrain the juvenile urge to taunt a runner I’ve passed with a nonsensical reworking of George Herbert’s “Love (III)” — “Sit down and taste my meat!” — but I can never resist hamming it up in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” specifically when the speaker plunges from the serenity of the “gardens bright” and “sunny spots of greenery” down into the darksome sublime:

But Oh, that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place!

Such lines demand to be read with the same intensity as woman wailing for her demon lover.

And once, when caught in a terrifying summer thunder storm — the kind where you frantically try to remember whether you should seek shelter under a tree, as far away from a tree as possible, or just sprint through the ankle-deep puddles as fast as possible and hope that your sneakers will absorb any electric charge — I bellowed Lear’s heath speech:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head!

The performance slightly mitigated my terror, though, unlike Lear, I taxed the elements with plenty of unkindness.

In calmer climes, my recitals are more private affairs. A little Richard Lovelace gets me into the questing spirit and out the door:

…a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace,
A sword, a horse, a shield.

Settling in to my pace, I shift from a martial to pagan mindset, indulging in Andrew Marvell’s pastoral visions or William Wordsworth’s flash mob of daffodils: “Ten thousand I saw at a glance,/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” In colder months, Thomas Hardy (“The ancient pulse of germ and birth/ Was shrunken hard and dry”) strangely invigorates the bleak landscape. If Hardy’s frail warbler can “fling his soul upon the growing gloom,” then I can drag my blast-beruffled ass over a barren hill.

Returning home, I usually cover a roughly 400-meter stretch reserved exclusively for Emily Dickinson poems. If I’m feeling in a good mood, “I taste a liquor never brewed;” burdened, “There’s a certain slant of light/ Winter afternoons/ That oppresses like the heft/ Of cathedral tunes;” or hurting, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I call it the Dickinson quarter-mile, and the world record is 1:49 with three poems recited. More impressive, in my view, than the beer mile.

Speaking of beer, I wish I had some poetry memorized in college, especially during that transition from the shorter distances and weaker fields of high school cross country. One quickly learns that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Perhaps Sir Thomas Wyatt’s bitterly erotic reverie, “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” would have been à propos, or more to the point:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, helas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.

coverOne especially fitting occasion for a dramatic poetic recitation would have been my first 8K race in Van Cortland Park, during which I collapsed on the top of the aptly named Cemetery Hill and, like Dante Alighieri upon hearing the pitiful tale of Paolo and Francesca, “caddi come corpo morte cade.” Given, however, that I was in no state to channel a foreign tongue, a terse bit from The Waste Land would have been more realistic: “And down we went.”

That head-thumping fall might explain why these days I forget poetry as quickly as I memorize it. Short lyrics vanish just as suddenly as longer pieces like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” whose lines I lose and regain as regularly as the waves “draw back, and fling” the pebbles on the shore. “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,/ I summon up remembrance of things past,” I can’t always summon up that remembrance. Despair not, though, for time flies when you are sifting through memory’s bric-a-brac and trying to reconstruct a poem. I once ran a three-mile stretch on a canal path while reassembling William Butler Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole.” By the time I had seized it once again, I felt some of the poet’s pleasure upon viewing Coole’s mysterious, beautiful creatures return

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams of climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

That pleasure was tempered by the melancholy realization that I myself would awake some day to find that the lines, like the swans, had flown away.

(A brief interpretive water stop: Having a poem by heart lets one explore its construction in a looser, less dutiful way than close-reading. After repeated recitals, this particular poem’s spatial dynamics rose to the fore. “The Wild Swans at Coole” is the first, and most oblique, of the three consecutive poems eulogizing Maj. Robert Gregory, an Irish fighter pilot killed in WWI. In the first two lines, we move from the treetops to the woodland paths; then from still sky to the “brimming” water. “Under” and “upon” (used five times throughout) begin lines in this first stanza, and the rest of the poem dramatizes the constantly shifting relationship between the earth-treading poet, weighed down by his loss, and the nine-and-fifty swans, either drifting on the still water or climbing the air. The action, imagery and even prepositions reinforce the latent symbolic connection between the departing swans, “wheeling in great broken rings/ Upon their clamorous wings,” and the departed fighter pilot, once aloft and now, tragically, underground. And off we go again…)

Many of the poems I have floating around my head in various states of repair are amorous, memorable instances of courtly and not-so-courtly love. These naturally come to mind when passing, being passed, or crossing paths with other runners. I wouldn’t describe myself as a lecher necessarily — “Down, wanton, down!” — but then again, few people would. So I’ll simply grant that from time I notice the female form in motion and fiddle with my stock of verse accordingly: “Whenas in performance fabric my Julia goes, / Then, then (methinks)/ How sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” Or if I’m feeling more romantic, some altered Lord Byron: “She jogs in beauty, like the night/ Of cloudless climes and starry skies.” Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew A Woman,” however, needs no such tinkering: “Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: The shapes a bright container can contain!”

During one run, I stumbled upon two ardent lovers in flagrante delicto within what they thought was a secluded grove. These encounters are just as embarrassing for the discovered as the discoverer. The pair looked to be doing a perfectly fine job, but annoyed by being thus importuned, I grumbled A.R. Ammons’s aspersive lines: “One failure on/ Top of another.”

That could just be the bitterness of middle-age talking. I am now in the middle of life’s journey. I’ll only get slower, and, if the last five years are any indication (three ankle sprains, calf heart attack — it’s a thing — bad hamstring, plantar fasciitis), I can look forward to new and exotic running injuries. But if you should ever come across me on the path and see in my halting stride and grim-faced muttering a defeated man, know that the “viewless wings of poetry” are transporting me and my aching feet to a better place:

And altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss
Silently and very fast.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at matthewseidel.com.

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