Mary Oliver: Rousing the Inner Poet

“Sometimes our light goes out, but it is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.”  -Albert Schweitzer

There is a certain writer whose name has been attached to delicious morsels that have been showing up more frequently at my table, and I have loved everything I have tasted. Her name is Mary Oliver. This week, I felt it was time to seek out more of her poems, so I requested a few of her books from the library. I opened one of them, Thirst, for the first time last night, and the very first poem, “Messenger,” took my breath away. It described to a tee how I experience my purpose in the world. Here is an excerpt:

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird – equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

As I turned the pages, savoring each new poem with tears streaming down my face, I wondered how it could be possible for someone I have never met to know my heart so completely. Perhaps it is because we share the same heart, the heart that holds all life.

I feel such gratitude when I read Mary Oliver’s nature-inspired poetry. I have felt that there are certain places where poems reside – or perhaps drift through the air – and my pencil and notebook (which I always bring on the river) together form the net with which I catch them. In my twenties, I used to catch a lot of poems while sitting at the bottom of waterfalls and even thought I needed to be by a waterfall in order to write anything worthwhile. 

Eventually, I learned that I could write next to my sleeping babies – and in time virtually anywhere else where I could find some peace and quiet.

Often when “I” write poetry, I feel I can’t take the credit because I simply write down and edit something that was whispered in my ear. The only credit I can accept is being still enough to hear it and moved enough to write it down.

I read Mary Oliver’s words, and poetry flows through me like a river. Her poems are like the warm sun that melts the ice so the river can flow once again. Of course, when the surface of the river is frozen, the depths remain fluid; however, it is certainly hard to dive below the frozen surface! When I read Mary Oliver’s poems, the mystic-poet in me awakens, ecstatic and singing. It’s as if she lights my own wick with her flame. The flame is within each of us, but sometimes it needs to be fanned or reignited in order to bring us back to life – to melt the places in which we have become frozen.


In my twenties, I experienced this same phenomenon whenever I read Kahlil Gibran’s poetry. It was as if I began channeling his spirit and even writing in his vernacular – using words like verily and selfsame as if they came naturally to me. 

And this is the power of art as I experience it: to awaken, to inspire, to uplift, to transform. I am so grateful to the poets who give voice to the song of my soul – our collective soul that I am often too busy or frozen to hear bubbling below the surface. I love brushing against a poem that awakens the poet within me and reminds me of who I am at my core.

When I do take time to write – often when I am seeking answers or resting in a stillpoint – what comes through my pen sometimes transcends ordinary consciousness. This is a therapeutic and uplifting experience. However, the interesting thing is that when you write something that transcends the ordinary state of mind, people often expect you to live up to those words and seem disappointed when you don’t. And I quite often don’t, falling under the spell of fear, anxiety, or restless desire – especially when I don’t get enough sleep or exercise. 

When I write about peace, stillness, and joy, it is not just a naive, Pollyanna view of the world. Life has kicked me around quite a bit – much moreso than people who read what I have to say would ever believe. At times, I have felt so ashamed of circumstances that I built a wall around myself, fearful that nobody would possibly understand. The flip side is that the hard knocks have made me more compassionate and less judgmental toward the suffering and situations of others. And no life is without its fair share of suffering! I often think that people who label uplifting, feel-good poetry as “saccharine” or “sentimental” don’t accept full responsibility for their own happiness. Perhaps they don’t understand what tough, courageous work it is to attune to peace, joy, and goodness after – or even in the midst of – 10,000 upheavals. It takes determination not to allow the world to bitter your mind or steal your faith. But that is the poet’s work: to bring a transcendent vision into a world riddled with sorrow. To light a candle in the darkness. To raise seedlings of hope.


A good poet finds the joy above it all and offers us wings, freeing us from the gravity of the world.


I intend to savor Mary Oliver’s books and am so grateful for her inspired voice! 

I am also grateful for a video I came across recently in which Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert reflects on the creative process as I relate to it and the impossible expectations put on artists when they are considered fully responsible for the creative process.


 
Email followers: Click HERE to view video.

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