woman practicing yoga

Active Poetry: 4 Poetry and Workout Pairings

Workouts and poetry may have more in common than you think. Both poetry and physical activity claim rhythm as a key influence, and both depend on personal flair (just as no one else dunks a basketball like LeBron James, no one writes in the duplex form quite like Jericho Brown). Additionally, both working out and writing or reading poetry stand out as valuable self-care strategies. 


In fact, many poets throughout history—from Emily Dickinson to Hadara Bar-Nadav—have relied on exercise as a fundamental part of their writing routine. Setting aside time for a workout can improve your concentration, boost your self-esteem, and make you more in tune with yourself—all vital components of enhancing your writing. These workout and poetry pairings showcase that surprising, ingrained relationship.


1. Boxing: “The Boxers” by Michael Longley


Anyone who loves to box can relate to the confidence Longley writes about in his poem “The Boxers,” which depicts two brothers practicing the sport with childlike exuberance. In the poem, the brothers imagine they are in an official championship ring—hinting at the sense of glory and accomplishment we all feel when pursuing a sport we love. Lastly, the poem ends on a note of both perseverance and camaraderie, revealing the deep relationships that sports and workouts can nurture, as well as how these connections bolster us.


“We were combatants from the start. Our dad / Bought us boxing gloves when we were ten — / Champions like Euryalus, say, or Epeius / Of wooden-horse fame: ‘I am the greatest!’ / ‘Nobody’s going to knock me down!’” writes Longley. “. . . I’ll tie your gloves. Shall we fight again?”


2. Dancing: “Dance Figure” by Ezra Pound


In his poem “Dance Figure,” renowned modernist poet Ezra Pound celebrates the splendor and beauty of dancers. If dancing is among your favorite workouts due to its grace, elegance, and even downright regality, this poem echoes those characteristics. The costumery depicted throughout the poem enlivens it with a sense of majesty and almost otherworldliness.


In describing the dancer at the center of the poem, Pound remarks, “Gilt turquoise and silver are in the place of thy rest. / A brown robe, with threads of gold woven in patterns, / hast thou gathered about thee, / . . . There is none like thee among the dancers; / None with swift feet.”


3. Running: “[When I go]” by Hannah Brooks-Motl


Hannah Brooks-Motl’s poem “[When I go]” embodies the liveliness and wildness of running. Throughout the poem, the speaker takes on an unbridled, joyful tone, perhaps best described as an exclamation. Runners will immediately connect with the poem’s sense of freedom, the poet’s connection with her surroundings, and the exploration of running as a form of art—not unlike poetry.


“When I go for my run it is art that I do—into the prairie!” writes Hannah Brooks-Motl. “There may be a yellow barn on the route—let us name it transcendence. / I hear the sound of earth coming up through the leaves—all upon the prairie! / The mind runs along, full of misconduct.”


4. Basketball: “Slam, Dunk, & Hook” by Yusef Komunyakaa


Yusef Komunyakaa, a former Pulitzer Prize winner and a professor at New York University, invites readers to the bustling basketball court with him in “Slam, Dunk, & Hook.” Against this landscape, humans become godlike, unstoppable, and invincible, the way many basketball players feel during a strong game. The poem’s incisive verbs and short, punchy lines contribute to a feeling of suspense—like every reader is watching the game, waiting to see how it ends.


“Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury’s / Insignia on our sneakers, / We outmaneuvered the footwork / Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot / Swish of strings like silk / Ten feet out,” writes Komunyakaa. “In the roundhouse / Labyrinth our bodies / Created, we could almost / Last forever, poised in midair / Like storybook sea monsters.”


Feeling inspired by these gorgeous and active poems? As a writing prompt, write a poem about your favorite workout. Set the scene: Are you in a dance studio, a neighborhood pool, or biking through your local park? Are your favorite workout jams blasting through your headphones, or are you basking in reflective silence? These details can make the playful, action-packed experience of working out come alive for your readers. Bonus: This writing prompt packs an opportunity for plenty of unique and imaginative verbs.