Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Mary Oliver’

10 APRIL, 2014

Mary Oliver on the Mystery of the Human Psyche, the Secret of Great Poetry, and How Rhythm Makes Us Come Alive

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“Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter.”

“Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world,” James Dickey wrote. “The way to develop good taste in literature,” Joseph Brodsky advised, “is to read poetry.” Wordsworth believed the poetic form to be “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.”“a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” But hardly anyone has captured the mesmerism of poetry more perceptively and, well, poetically than the inimitable Mary Oliver — winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, once described by The New York Times as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet,” and nothing less than a secular modern mystic of the written word. In her altogether magnificent 1994 book A Poetry Handbook (public library), Oliver teases apart the mechanisms by which poetry enchants us, exploring the magic of rhythm as not only the fire in the belly of poetry but also a gateway into a profound human longing.

Mary Oliver (b. 1935, right) with her partner of over forty years, photographer Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005) at the couple's home in Provincetown, Massachusetts

Oliver considers the intricate courtship between poetry and the soul:

If Romeo and Juliet had made their appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet — one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere — there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing a poem is not so different—it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.

The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem — the heart of the star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say — exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself — soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.

Why should it? It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime. Who knows anyway what it is, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live? But we do know this: if it is going to enter into a passionate relationship and speak what is in its own portion of your mind, the other responsible and purposeful part of you had better be a Romeo. It doesn’t matter if risk is somewhere close by — risk is always hovering somewhere. But it won’t involve itself with anything less than a perfect seriousness.

For the would-be writer of poems, this is the first and most essential thing to understand. It comes before everything, even technique.

Mary Oliver in 1964 (photograph by Molly Malone Cook)

She goes on to explore the spellbinding power of rhythm:

The reader, as he or she begins to read, quickly enters the rhythmic pattern of a poem. It takes no more than two or three lines for a rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader. Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven.

And yet, as in life itself, much of the vitality in poetry comes from artfully disrupting the smooth cadence of that steady, predictable rhythm:

Lines of good poetry are apt to be a little irregular. A prevailing sense of rhythm is necessary, but some variation enhances the very strength of the pattern. The singsong poem is a dull poem. Variation wakes us up with its touch of difference, just as a cadence of drums in a marching band keeps two things going at the same time: a strict and regular beat and a few contrapuntal accents, flourishes, and even silences… Within the poem, irregularities may occur for the sake of variation; they may also occur because of stresses required by the words themselves, for accuracy, for emphasis, etc.

Rather than opposing forces that tear asunder the aesthetic experience, Oliver reminds us that these seeming polarities of rhythm and irregularity actually exist in the osmotic synchronicity that lends poetry its power:

The name itself — free verse — implies that this kind of poetry rose out of a desire for release from the restraints of meter, or the measured line, and strict rhythmic patterns… Free verse is not, of course, free. It is free from formal metrical design, but it certainly isn’t free from some kind of design. Is poetry language that is spontaneous, impulsive? Yes, it is. Is it also language that is composed, considered, appropriate, and effective, though you read the poem a hundred times? Yes, it is.

Mary Oliver with one of her beloved dogs (photograph by Rachel Brown)

Above all, however, Oliver advocates for poetry as a sandbox for exercising that elusive yet essential willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery (a subject of which she has written beautifully) and make peace with the ambiguity of the unresolved — a concept John Keats famously termed “negative capability.” Oliver, with a spectacular simile, riffs on Keats:

Poetry cannot happen without it, and no one has talked about it more usefully and marvelously than Keats; his commentary is as up-to-date as a sunrise.

A Poetry Handbook is a fantastic read in its entirety, with ample wisdom not only on poetry itself but on all writing, the essence of which applies to just about every field of creative endeavor. Complement it with Oliver’s soul-stirring Dog Songs, one of 2013′s most wonderful books celebrating animals.

Hand-lettered illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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24 FEBRUARY, 2014

Tara Brach Reads from Mary Oliver’s “Dog Songs”

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The beauty of unconditional love, at its sweetest.

Key among my favorite podcasts is one by DC-based mindfulness teacher Tara Brach. Imagine my delight when in a recent episode, Brach illustrated one of her teachings on lovingkindness, or metta, by reading from Dog Songs (public library) by Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver — one of 2013′s best books about pets and animals, with which I fell in love last November.

This particular poem, titled “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” is easily my favorite from the altogether magnificent book, and Brach’s beautiful, gentle reading makes it triply enriching:

LITTLE DOG’S RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
  in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

“Tell me you love me,” he says.

“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.

Dog Songs is a soul-stirring read in its totality. Whet your appetite with a few more poems from it, and be sure to listen to some of Brach’s full lectures, for she might just change your life — she certainly did mine.

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12 NOVEMBER, 2013

Dog Songs: Mary Oliver on What Dogs Teach Us About the Meaning of Our Human Lives

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“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift.”

Mary Oliver is not only one of the sagest and most beloved poets of our time, a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, but is also among literary history’s greatest pet-lovers. Dog Songs (public library) collects her most soul-stirring poems and short prose celebrating that special human-canine relationship and what it reveals about the meaning of our own lives — a beautiful manifestation of Oliver’s singular sieve for extracting from the particularities of the poetic subject the philosophical universalities of the human condition to illuminate what it means to live a good life, a full life, a life of purpose and presence.

Inhale, for instance, this:

LUKE

I had a dog
  who loved flowers.
    Briskly she went
        through the fields,

yet paused
  for the honeysuckle
    or the rose,
        her dark head

and her wet nose
  touching
    the face
         of every one

with its petals
  of silk,
    with its fragrance
         rising

into the air
  where the bees,
    their bodies
        heavy with pollen,

hovered—
  and easily
     she adored
        every blossom,

not in the serious,
  careful way
    that we choose
        this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
  the way we love
     or don’t love—
        but the way

we long to be—
  that happy
    in the heaven of earth—
        that wild, that loving.

Amidst the poetic, there are also the necessary, playfully practical reminders of how dogs illustrate the limitations of our own sensory awareness:

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.

Then there are the fictional — or are they? — conversations with Oliver’s dog Ricky, which brim with love and wisdom. In one, titled “Show Time,” they watch a dog show on TV and wince at the unfortunate, borderline abusive grooming the contestants have had to endure. Ricky exclaims:

“If I ever meet one of these dogs I’m going
to invite him to come here, where he can
be a proper dog.”

Okay, I said. But remember, you can’t fix
everything in the world for everybody.

“However,” said Ricky, “you can’t do
anything at all unless you begin. Haven’t
I heard you say that once or twice, or
maybe a hundred times?”

In another poem, Oliver affectionately acknowledges that innocent canine gift for employing a dog’s intellect for his own self-gratification, as when he dupes both you the other household human into feeding him breakfast:

Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble. A dog is a true and loving friend. A dog is also a hedonist.

In a short prose piece, Oliver considers the wretched elephant in every dog-lover’s room:

Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old — or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.

One of her most poignant meditations strokes the heart of why dogs are so much more than the ornament Virginia Woolf’s nephew reduced them to. It comes in the collection’s concluding essay, emanating the loving-kindness of Buddhism and condensing that in the prism of the dog:

Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?

LITTLE DOG’S RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
  in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

“Tell me you love me,” he says.

“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.

But even more powerful is the other direction of that affirmative affection — the wholehearted devotion of dogs, who love us unconditionally and in the process teach us to love; in letting us see ourselves through their eyes, they help us believe what they see, believe that we are worthy of love, that we are love.

THE SWEETNESS OF DOGS

What do you say, Percy? I am thinking
of sitting out on the sand to watch
the moon rise. It’s full tonight.
So we go

and the moon rises, so beautiful it
makes me shudder, makes me think about
time and space, makes me take
measure of myself: one iota
pondering heaven. Thus we sit, myself

thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up
into my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.

Ultimately, the closing verses of the poem “Percy Wakes Me” speak for the entire collection:

This is a poem about Percy.
This is a poem about more than Percy.
Think about it.

And oh how much more is Dog Songs about. Complement it with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of the best art books of 2012, John Homans’s impossibly moving What’s a Dog For?, and this illustrated adaptation of Bob Dylan’s classic If Dogs Run Free.

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