Before going to bed last night, I looked through Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and copied into my journal some of the lines I had underlined as I read through it during the past year.Mary Oliver must be on this earth by some cosmic miracle. We don’t deserve her. Yet I am deeply grateful she is here putting words on paper for me to read. In A Poetry Handbook, Oliver’s stated purpose is writing and understanding poetry. But I think this book can also be read as a handbook for life, a guidebook for understanding and making our way through each day on earth.
The poem is not a discussion, not a lecture, but an instance—an instance of attention, of noticing something in the world.
The poem is an attitude, and a prayer; it sings on the page and it sings itself off the page.
Today is the autumnal equinox, the first day of fall. As I sink into the coolness of autumn this year, I am also letting myself sink into the comfort of poetry. To submerge myself in it as a cloak against the winter close at hand. I woke up early this morning to watch the sunrise and to read poetry. All day I have had this excited energy in my body.
I am trying to notice, to walk slowly so that I can see poems in the world. So that my noticing can turn into prayer. As if always expecting poetry to be around the bend.
Pine needles that look like feathers in the golden hour. Brilliant red leaves fluttering to the sidewalk. Cool air touching my arms.
My hall director, Sara, introduced me to Mary Oliver when I was going through a hard time with my faith and relationships. She sent me this note one day.
Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision—a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.
Sometimes it seems frivolous to write about poetry and walking slowly when people are dying and rioting. But I choose to believe that poetry and art of all kinds is necessary and life-cherishing. That my small acts of noticing and listening will bring change somehow.
If you want more Mary Oliver, this On Being interview is a delight. Or read any of her poems. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.