may 19/RUN

5.5. miles
ford loop*
66 degrees

*slight variation: began by running north through the neighborhood instead of on the river road trail

Sun! Low humidity! Birds! Clear paths! What a wonderful morning for a run! Even the struggle of getting a girl to go to school (which I’ve been steadily doing for 6 years now…almost every weekday morning) couldn’t dull the shine of this day.

10 Things I Noticed

  1. someone revving up an old lawnmower — a rattle then roar, a hot, smoky smell
  2. voices on the other side of lake street, sitting outside at Dunn Bros or Longfellow Grill
  3. looking downstream at the river, the water was almost foamy in spots and looked cold — an ice cold blue
  4. a biker biking up the hill alongside me — me on the trail, them in the bike lane — wearing a bright yellow shirt and moving so slowly that I almost caught up to them
  5. Shadow Falls sputtering, the creek feeding it flowing fast
  6. the dirt trail next to the paved on the east river trail was sometimes packed and hard, sometimes sandy and soft
  7. a plaque on a random rock I didn’t stop to read — what does it say? who is it honoring?
  8. a lone goose flying very low, just above my head, as I ran over the ford bridge, uttering random low, slow honks
  9. looking upstream at the river, it was a deeper shade of blue and was clear and calm and foamless
  10. the 44th street sewer pipe on the Winchell Trail had water that gurgled, the 42nd street, water that gushed

where I ran, what I ran on: gritty, graveling dirt; soft sand; packed dirt; asphalt; tree roots; concrete; a paved trail; a dirt trail next to the paved one; a dirt trail that used to be paved; the street; a big bridge; a bigger bridge; the ruts in the road; between orange cones and the curb at a spot where they were working on the road or the sewer or something that rerouted the trail; 2 sets of steps going down; a shaded trail; a sunny trail; grass; mud; flower petals

I’m working on a proposal for a fall class at the Loft Literary Center. The process of writing a syllabus is time-consuming and very inefficient. I spend a lot of time circling around ideas until I find just the right way into them. As I continue to struggle, I was hoping Mary Oliver and her poem, “Invitation,” could help. So I recited it in my head as I ran — I memorized it a few years ago. Did it? I think so, but I can’t really remember the thoughts it prompted. I recall thinking about the goldfinches and wondering about how much work they were doing in this poem. The focus of the poem is the musical battle that the goldfinches are engaged in. This battle is “not for your sake/and not for mine/and not for the sake of winning/but for sheer delight and gratitude.” Yet, with it, the birds say “believe us/it is a serious thing/just to be alive/on this fresh morning/in this broken world.” And their “rather ridiculous performance,” if we pause to attend to it, could change our life. This makes me want to return to Ada Limón’s VS. podcast episode (vs. Epiphany). Would the birds really want to talk to me/you/us when they’re having so much in their battle?

This poem is aptly titled; it was one of my early invitations into poetry. Those birds and their ridiculous performance and the call to change my life got me thinking and imagining. It also made me frustrated. What does it mean to change your life? How do we do it? For my class, I’m thinking about an introduction to poetry as a way in, a door, an invitation, the gesture of a stranger saying, “Look!” to you as they point out an eagle in a tree. Mary Oliver’s invitation is one way this could work — maybe we could look at different versions of the invitation, from other writers?

An invitation to what? — here’s another way that Mary Oliver fits in. I’m thinking of the invitation in terms of her instructions for living a life: 1. Pay Attention, 2. Be Astonished, 3. Tell About It. The invitation is to notice, to be in wonderment, to share it with others. I want to tie this together with the idea of giving attention as more than an individual act, but a collective shared one that can lead to caring for and about, to empathy, to repair, and to social transformation. Now I just need to express that in 200 words!

Here is a definition of poetry from Ilya Kaminsky that I discovered this morning that might help:

For me poetry is a moment of awe — that silence that travels from one human body to another by means of words. Gilgamesh was written 4,000 ago and it transforms us still. This is what poetry is: not a kind of public posturing but a private language of music and imagery that is strange and compelling enough that it can speak privately to thousands of people at the same time.

Ilya Kaminsky in the New Statesmen

Oh, I almost forgot that at the end of my run I stopped and recorded some thoughts into my phone. Here is some of what I said:

As part of my course proposal, I need to offer a sample activity. I think I’ll do a variation on my “The Is, the Ought, the Why and Why Not” exercise. In this exercise, students choose a handful of poems (5-10? — more? less?) and read them several times. Then they’ll pick out some of their favorite lines and classify them according to whether the lines are describing the world (the Is), offering advice on how to be in the world or how the world should be (the Ought), being curious/asking questions about the world (the Why), or imagining new ways to be (the Why Not?). As I write this description, I’m realizing I need to fine-tune my distinctions between the categories here.

This class is an introduction to poetry from the perspective of the poem as a door, an invitation, with a specific focus on how that invitation leads to attention and care and repair and connection and transformation. We will look at what attention is; what care is, focusing a lot on how poets write and learning from their words. There will be opportunities to practice with your own poems, but much of it will be about learning about the invitation and how to take it up, as a reader and writer. I want to bring in Alice Oswald’s thoughts from an essay for The Guardian:

Go and leaf through the poetry section of your local library. Take out a book of Border Ballads, look at John Clare’s sonnets, soak yourself in Gerard Manley Hopkins. If you like the ballads, go on reading them until everything you think comes out in four lines with the second and fourth rhyming (but be careful in public places). If you like the sonnets, read them until you start to speak in five-beat lines with alternating soft and loud syllables; and then write a series of poems that all last fourteen lines.

Although it’s fine to imitate a poem, I want to leave you with this one strong claim: that you should never learn to write one, you should never write a poem till you can feel it in your bones. Because poetry is your whole body’s response to the whole world, not just your head’s response to a thought or a glimpse.

Reading through this last bit again, I wonder if I agree. Should you never try to write a poem unless your whole body is in it? Maybe having it be a whole body experience is the goal, the aim, and maybe you can strive for it as you’re attempting to write poems?