Why poetry? Why Mary Oliver?
More often than not I include some of Mary Oliver’s poetry in my classes. I thought it would be helpful to explain why I think that her words are so relevant to our practise.
“To practice ‘mindfulness’ is to develop an open-hearted, moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of what is going on right now”
Jon Kabat Zinn
This quote points to the founding emotional energies that are required. A kindly and empathic curiosity in what we do experience, whether that be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. A kindness that starts and ends with our own experience – what else do we ever have! – and which we may come to realize is bound up with the experience of all living beings. The ecological imperative!!
How might this be aided by poetry in general or Mary Oliver in particular?
David Keefe (Manjusvara) – a Bristol based poet now gone but not lost to us– suggests that “although prose may seem the more natural use of language in reality, with all its added pauses, repetitions and disjunctions poetry comes close to the way we think and communicate.”
Poetry makes language more memorable, which is why many of us carry fragments of it which we repeat to ourselves and others in moments of celebration and crisis.
James K Baxter names poetry as ‘a souvenir from reality’ – something that reminds us of that which is most precious from our experience. And because language is made more memorable we can remember it more clearly – just as we do a favorite song or tune.
Mary Oliver’s passion for what she sees around her (mostly but not entirely in the ‘natural’ world) provides the energy, attention and awareness for a dedicated practice of mindfulness – something that she never labours but is fully aware of.
I see or I hear
that more or less
that makes me
like a needle
in the haystack
it is what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar
I say to myself
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings as these –
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
(from ‘Why I wake up early’)
She also says that “attention is the beginning of devotion” – a culmination of the kindness which is fundamental to the practice.
One critic took her to task for the liberal insertion of an ‘I’ in her writing. Rather than betraying self-centredness she says her intention is to suggest the experience described might happen for the reader also, that we all share in this and indeed she challenges us to do so:
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
(from ‘The Summer day’)
Her empathy shines through in one of her most popular poems – one which has been credited with saving lives:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting
You only have to let the soft animal of your soul love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
Are moving cross the landscapes,
Over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely.
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.
(from New and Collected Poems, 1992)
Where does the strength to live as she has and to just keep on writing no matter what come from? She senses an order and a connection to the universe that may not be always obvious even as it sustains us.
Beauty without purpose is beauty without virtue –
All beautiful things have this function
To excite the viewers toward sublime thought.
Glory to the world, that good teacher.
For anyone (including the Qi Gong practitioner) open to more than just ‘understanding’ that all things, are changeable and inter-penetrating she points out (quoting Lucretius on the way!) that everything is indeed made up of bits of energy; is inherently insubstantial and in the end, perhaps, not wholly satisfactory. But then not unsatisfactory either:
We all have much more listening to do.
Tear the sand away from your ears. And listen.
The river is singing
 Mary Oliver is 80 years old and lived for most of her life in New England (now in Florida, “getting to love the mangroves”). She is a Pullitzer prize winning author and one of the US’s most loved contemporary poets.
She says herself that she had “an insufficient childhood” and harsh resentment of this is found in a few of her poems. She found an escape from the toxic family home by escaping to the countryside and was “saved” by the “beauty of the world”. She has dedicated her life to the vision she found there and often very poor she sometimes collected food from the seashore and the woodland along with her inspiration.
 David Keefe/Manjusvara, ‘The Poet’s Way’, Windhorse 2010