“Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.”
By Maria Popova
“I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too,” the irreplaceable Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) reflected in her lovely autobiographical essay on how literature saved her life. But what does it take to write such buoyant literature — be it poetry or prose — that lends itself as a lifeboat to those far from the shore of being?
A decade after she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and three years after receiving the National Book Award, Oliver distilled her wisdom on writing into a short prose poem titled “Sand Dabs, One,” found in her 1995 book Blue Pastures (public library) — just a few lines, largehearted and limber, each saturated with meaning and illustrating the principle it espouses in a clever meta-manifestation of that principle embedded in the language itself.
Lists, and verbs, will carry you many a dry mile.
To imitate or not to imitate — the question is easily satisfied. The perils of not imitating are greater than the perils of imitating.
Always remember — the speaker doesn’t do it. The words do it.
Look for verbs of muscle, adjectives of exactitude.
The idea must drive the words. When the words drive the idea, it’s all floss and gloss, elaboration, air bubbles, dross, pomp, frump, strumpeting.
Don’t close the poem as you opened it, unless your name is Blake and you have written a poem about a Tyger.
“The world’s otherness is antidote to confusion [and] standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”
By Maria Popova
“There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully,” Proust wrote in contemplating why we read, “as the days we think we left behind without living at all: the days we spent with a favourite book.” And yet childhoods come in varied hues, some much darker than others; some children only survive by leaving the anguish of the real world behind and seeking shelter in the world of books.
Looking back on her barely survivable childhood, ravaged by pain which Oliver has never belabored or addressed directly — a darkness she shines a light on most overtly in her poem “Rage” and discusses obliquely in her terrific On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — she contemplates how reading saved her life:
Adults can change their circumstances; children cannot. Children are powerless, and in difficult situations they are the victims of every sorrow and mischance and rage around them, for children feel all of these things but without any of the ability that adults have to change them. Whatever can take a child beyond such circumstances, therefore, is an alleviation and a blessing.
Rebecca Solnit, in her beautiful meditation on the life-saving vanishing act of reading, wrote: “I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods.” Oliver disappeared into both. For her, the woods were not a metaphor but a locale of self-salvation — she found respite from the brutality of the real world in the benediction of two parallel sacred worlds: nature and literature. She vanished into the woods, where she found “beauty and interest and mystery,” and she vanished into books. In a sentiment that calls to mind Kafka’s unforgettable assertion that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” Oliver writes:
The second world — the world of literature — offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything — other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.
Oliver approached her new sacred world not just with the imaginative purposefulness typical of children aglow with a new obsession, but with a survivalist determination aimed at nothing less than self-salvation:
I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly. I read by day and into the night. I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes. I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.
I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.
In literature, she had her fill of the “clear and sweet and savory emotion” absent from the reality of her ordinary world, until reading alone was no longer enough — writing beckoned as the mighty world-building force that it is. Oliver recalls:
I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door — a thousand opening doors! — past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.
I saw what skill was needed, and persistence — how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page — the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work.
With an eye to how the enlivening power of this “passion for work” slowly and steadily superseded the deadening weight of her circumstances, Oliver issues an incantation almost as a note to herself whispered into the margins:
You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.
Echoing young Sylvia Plath’s insistence on writing as salvation for the soul, Oliver takes a lucid look at the nuanced nature of such self-salvation through creative work and considers what it means to save one’s own life:
I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe — that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.
And now my old dog is dead, and another I had after him, and my parents are dead, and that first world, that old house, is sold and lost, and the books I gathered there lost, or sold — but more books bought, and in another place, board by board and stone by stone, like a house, a true life built, and all because I was steadfast about one or two things: loving foxes, and poems, the blank piece of paper, and my own energy — and mostly the shimmering shoulders of the world that shrug carelessly over the fate of any individual that they may, the better, keep the Niles and the Amazons flowing. And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want to with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.
“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
By Maria Popova
“In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity, “world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.
How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) explores in a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in the altogether enchanting Upstream: Selected Essays (public library).
It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.
But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.
Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding:
The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.
Echoing Borges’s puzzlement over our divided personhood, Oliver sets out to excavate the building blocks of the self in order to understand its parallel capacities for focused creative flow and merciless interruption. She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.
The first two selves, she argues, inhabit the ordinary world and are present in all people; the third is of a different order and comes most easily alive in artists — it is where the wellspring of creative energy resides. She writes:
Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.
Oliver contrasts the existential purpose of the two ordinary selves with that of the creative self:
Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?
Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.
In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.
Part of this something-elseness, Oliver argues, is the uncommon integration of the creative self — the artist’s work cannot be separated from the artist’s whole life, nor can its wholeness be broken down into the mechanical bits-and-pieces of specific actions and habits. (Elsewhere, Oliver has written beautifully about how habit gives shape to but must not control our inner lives).
Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.
No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.
Above all, Oliver observes from the “fortunate platform” of a long, purposeful, and creatively fertile life, the artist’s task is one of steadfast commitment to the art:
Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.
She returns to the problem of concentration, which for the artist is a form, perhaps the ultimate form, of consecration:
The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.
It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.
A beautiful musical homage to the eternal dance of life and death.
By Maria Popova
“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay exclaimed in a letter. “Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed in contemplating the singular power of music. Given this aesthetic envy, how befitting and redemptive that some of history’s greatest poetry and philosophy should become the creative seed for beautiful music in singer-songwriter Shannon Hawley’s debut album, A Different Kind of Progress — an exquisite thirteen-song cycle, five years in the making, inspired by the poetry and philosophy of beloved writers like Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, Rumi, and Tagore.
“How Real” is based on Rumi’s poem “Float, Trust, Enjoy,” found in The Soul of Rumi:
FLOAT, TRUST, ENJOY
Muhammad said no one looks
back and regrets leaving this
world. What’s regretted
is how real we thought it was!
How much we worried about
phenomena and how little
we considered what moves
through form. “Why did I spend
my life denying death? Death
is the key to truth!” When you
hear lamenting like that, say,
not out loud, but
inwardly, “What moved you
then still moves you, the same
energy. But you understand
perfectly now that you are not essentially a body, tissue, bone,
brain, and muscle. Dissolve
in the clear vision. Instead of
looking down at the six feet of
ahead, look up: see both worlds,
the face of the king, the ocean
shaping and carrying
you along. You’ve heard
descriptions of that sea. Now
float, trust, enjoy the motion.”
“Winter’s White Owl” is inspired by Mary Oliver’s poem “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field,” found in her New and Selected Poems, Volume One — an immensely enlivening perspective on death:
WHITE OWL FLIES INTO AND OUT OF THE FIELD
Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.