One smart poet: Mary Oliver questions and comforts

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

April is National Poetry Month in the U.S. and Canada. Some think poetry is dumb; or even worse, pointless.

Some think it necessary for survival.

It is said to be the first kind of story-telling, a way of talking that humans came upon to tell another person important life lessons in rhyme and rhythm so they would remember.

I think poetry can save your soul, even though you learned to hate poems because a seventh grade English teacher told you that your out-loud poetry reading put the class to sleep and that your homework was so off the mark, were you even reading the assigned poem?

I believe that reading poetry aloud is especially beneficial to the soul, for when you speak it, you don’t even have to know what you’re reading, for the sound of the words the poet has chosen, the rhythms the poet has worked on – these two things can soothe the soul like homemade soup when you’re sad or a drink after work.

My favorite poet right now is the recently deceased (January) Mary Oliver, who died at 83 having published poetry since she was 28. She was prolific and popular, deceptively deep but so easy to understand. The thing about Mary is that “easy to understand” does not mean shallow; each time I read a poem of hers, I find another layer of poignancy and nearly always profundity. As her flower poems lull me with their beauty, they make me question the too-busyness of my life. She slows me down. From her poems on death, I fear it less. From her lifelong awe, I practice a way of being.

Mary Oliver is the questioning poet. My intro to her was her poem “The Summer Day,” the title itself simple, almost boring. From the first line, she hooked me: “Who made the world?” In the final line, she reeled me in: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I have not quite figured out the answer, but Mary and her questions lead me on; she always makes me think a little deeper.

In poem after poem, Mary Oliver exposes herself as the most curious poet you’ve ever met; she is always asking personal questions: “Do you love this world?” [from the poem “Peonies”]

“What happens to the singing birds when they can’t sing any longer?” [From the poem “Roses, Late Summer”]

“What if you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves began to rustle, and a bird cheerfully sang from its painted branches?” [from the poem “How Would You Love Then?”]

“Will I ever understand him?/Certainly he will never understand me, or the world/I come from./For he will never sing for the kingdom of dollars./For he will never grow pockets in his gray wings.”/ [from the poem “Catbird”]

“Do you think the heart is accountable?” [from the poem “Music”]

The poem “The Sun” is eight brief stanzas of one question, the final stanza summing up the sly query “…or have you gone crazy for power, for things?”

“And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?/And have you changed your life?” [from the poem “The Swan”]

Mary Oliver has a poem for every occasion in your life, for every feeling you’ve ever had, for every conundrum that has puzzled you. Read her and weep. Or cry. Or laugh. Read her for pleasure. Simply reread.

In “Wild Geese,” Mary writes:

“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.”

That is comforting.

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