On a Friday evening last March I was sitting next to a stranger at dinner. We’d just started a weekend poetry retreat so we pretty quickly got to talking about our own writing practices. That’s when I heard myself say something that changed the rest of my year:
Musicians don’t play only their own music. I wonder what it would be like to write out someone else’s poetry.
The thought stuck with me through the weekend. So when I got home I tried it.
I don’t remember how I chose the first poem—Rilke’s “Knots of Our Own Making”—but one morning later that week I went to the coffee shop, pulled it up on my phone, and copied it out by hand on a piece of paper. Line for line, comma for comma.
Once didn’t feel like enough so the next morning I copied it again, this time working off the one I’d done the day before.
My hazy goal was just to spend time with the poem. To feel what it was like to write it. To see what I noticed when I paid a different, closer kind of attention to it.
But after eight or nine days of copying it something else happened, too. I sat down at the coffee shop and wrote out the whole thing, line for line, comma for comma, without looking at the previous day’s copy.
I’d committed it to memory.
A couple days later I started copying a different poem. Sure enough after a couple weeks I’d memorized that one, too. By the end of 2019 I’d committed 16 poems to memory without ever intending to memorize one.
[I’ll list all 16 poems at the bottom of this page in case you’re curious.]
What poems are good for
Having all these poems in memory is like walking around with my pockets full of glowing little jewels, ready to share them in case they come in handy.
And they have.
I’ve shared these poems with friends who are grappling with transition and loss. I’ve used them to help facilitate contemplative gatherings. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I’ll say one silently to myself until I drift off. I even closed my grandmother’s memorial service with one.
But memorizing the poems is really a secondary benefit. The biggest value for me has been in the practice.
It only takes 5 or 10 minutes to write one out. But poems distill wisdom and beauty into such a concentrated form that those few minutes give a more rooted and spacious context to my day. And since you spend a week or two with the same poem, it has time to ricochet around inside and find the places you most deeply connect to it.
Wanna give it a try?
And that’s why I wanted to write about this practice. One of the big questions I’ve been dancing with over the last year is:
How can I take the things that have been life-giving for me and offer them in ways that might be helpful for other people, too?
In that spirit, if this sounds like a practice you might enjoy, I invite you to give it a try. It’s so simple you almost have to stretch it to make three steps, but here it goes:
- Choose a poem that moves you
- Copy it by hand every day until you can do it from memory
- Then choose a different poem and repeat
I usually do it in the morning at a local coffee shop because the promise of an espresso macchiato helps me stay consistent. Do whatever works for you. (But it can’t hurt to pair it with a delicious beverage.)
Oh, and this is important. It’s okay if you don’t do it every day. I usually miss at least a day or two a week and it’s still great.
Send me a quick note and let me know if you’re gonna try it! You can leave a comment below or use the connect page here on the site if you don’t have my email address. It would be fun to hear how it goes for you.
Happy copying :)
PS, if you have any favorite poems you think would work well for this practice, leave them in the comments for me and anyone else looking for a good poem to use!
Here are the 16 poems I’ve practiced with so far, listed alphabetically by the authors’ last names:
- No Going Back, by Wendell Berry
- I Dwell in Possibility, by Emily Dickinson
- Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden
- God’s Grandeur, by Gerard Manley Hopkins
- Caminante, by Antonio Machado
- The Journey, by Mary Oliver
- Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver
- Dear Darkening Ground, by Rainer Maria Rilke
- Knots of Our Own Making, by Rainer Maria Rilke
- Widening Circles, by Rainer Maria Rilke
- The Guest House, by Rumi
- Lost, by David Wagoner
- Love After Love, by Derek Walcott
- Desire, by Alice Walker
- Finisterre, by David Whyte
- Sweet Darkness, by David Whyte
I could still recite some of them for you right now. Others I’d need to brush up a little before I could get them just right. But all of them feel like part of the wisdom repertoire I now get to carry into my life and relationships.