20 January 2019

for Mary Oliver

The Other Kingdoms

Consider the other kingdoms. The
trees, for example, with their mellow-sounding
titles: oak, aspen, willow.
Or the snow, for which the peoples of the north
have dozens of words to describe its
different arrivals. Or the creatures, with their
Thick fur, their shy and wordless gaze. Their
infallible sense of what their lives
are meant to be. Thus the world
grows rich, grows wild, and you too
grow rich, grow sweetly wild, as you too
were born to be.


Just As The Calendar Began To Say Summer

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the woods
and spent all summer forgetting what I'd been taught –

two times two, and diligence, and so forth,
how to be modest and useful, and how to succeed and so forth,
machines and oil and plastic and money and so forth.

By fall I had healed somewhat, but was summoned back
to the chalky rooms and the desks, to sit and remember

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn't a penny in the bank,
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.

– Mary Oliver

Both of these poems are from Oliver's collection Devotions.

The poet Mary Oliver died last week, on Thursday 17 January 2019, aged 83.

I've been a little surprised by the somewhat grudging tone of several obituaries I've seen, which note that she is extraordinarily popular and perhaps overly quotable (I guess they mean popular for a poet, and I don't know what's wrong with being cherished by many readers, or saying memorable things in a memorable way), that the New York Times didn't think highly of her (that's fine with me; I don't think highly of the New York Times), and that her poetry is "simple" (by which I guess they mean she strives for clarity, which, again, does not strike me as a fault in a writer trying to communicate a message). Simple? She is the Wordsworth of our time, and he too was often criticized or mocked for his deeply subversive "simplicity". Like him, she is very much a poet of the healing power of Nature, and of oneself alone in Nature, and of the power of memories conjured up in trying circumstances. Look at the two poems I've posted above: in the first, the odd line endings keep you off-balance as she walks you through the worlds around us. Significantly, she starts off not by describing these separate kingdoms of trees and snow as they are on their own, but by describing the names we have given them – this not only puts us in direct relation to these kingdoms, it emphasizes that it is our perception of them that has the greatest effect on us, so that at the end of the poem she can remind us that we too, in our inmost selves, are inextricably part of this natural world. The modifier sweetly added to the earlier wild (Thus the world / grows rich, grows wild, and you too / grow rich, grow sweetly wild) brings us to an elemental joy in our union with the natural world around us. In the second poem, it is not so much learning that she runs from and tries to forget, but the social shackles forced on children as they are trained to be members of our wasteful, money-obsessed society – diligence, and modesty and plastics and money and "success" that isn't defined because it's clear what it means in this world she is supposed to enter. The repetition of and so forth indicates the wearying sameness of these lessons, and that we also know all too well what they're comprised of. Her true education, and this ironically also happens to her in the classroom, comes in the precise memories of the world outside her, the world from which school is trying to separate her. Oliver's insistence on the importance of noticing not what we are supposed to see but what is actually there, on finding for ourselves that which will bring us meaning, and on the crucial importance of, and our dependence on and co-existence with, the natural world that we mostly exploit and ignore, makes her one of our leading political poets.

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