June has arrived and with it, Dept. of Nance Poetry Month. It's the First Ever, so who knows how things will transpire? Let's get right to it, Readers Mine, and celebrate!
Our first offering is by a poet who comes from Maple Heights, Ohio, a city not too terribly far from where I
live in NEO. She studied at Ohio State and Vassar, and later lived as a companion to Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister in the famous poet's home for several years. Quietly and persistently, she became well-known, reading her poems in almost every single state and earning honors and awards for her verse. This remarkable voice can count among her accolades a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, and several honorary doctorates. I will be forever in fellow blog writer Rose's debt for introducing me to the work of Mary Oliver.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
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.
I wonder if there isn't a bit of the Buddhist in Mary Oliver; her nature poems remind me of Walt Whitman's, but are more spiritual and less Nineteenth Century Hippie. She has hundreds more that are better, more breathtaking, and better examples of her astonishing craftsmanship, but this particular poem was like a little bit of therapy for me this morning. Yesterday had been a lousy day for a lot of reasons, and I awoke today with a migraine in a stuffy bedroom. The air was heavy and humid, and my sleep had been hard-fought. My hands were swollen from arthritis; the rest of me was puffy from my new migraine medicine. Not only is my new medicine apparently not working, but it has also made me gain weight--and noticeably, (thanks for mentioning it, Mr. LandscaperFriend, and loudly, too, in the middle of The Garden Center). In short, I was feeling Really Sorry For Myself.
Enter Mary Oliver and Wild Geese. "You do not have to be good," she tells me, and that first sentence is so comforting, such a balm to my wounded psyche, that tears well up in my eyes. I don't have to be a martyr, a penitent, a saint, an ideal. My relief is almost cathartic.
"Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine." How much I needed this reminder! My problems are just that--mine. My troubles would be trivial to people who awoke this morning in a foreclosed home, awoke in a hospital, awoke worrying about a parent in a nursing home, awoke to ready a special needs child for camp. There is despair, then there is my version of it, then there is someone else's. That comma, then the word "yours" is huge--parenthetical, really.
"Meanwhile the world goes on." While this might sound like "suck it up", the examples that Mary Oliver provides are rejuvenating and encouraging. Sun and rain move across the land, and the earth continues its cycle of life. Wild geese rise in the sky and return home.
What I love about the last five lines of this poem is that she anticipates the reader's evolution of emotions. He or she enters the poem feeling sad and alone with her despair. She wants to share her burdens, and then realizes that not only does everyone have troubles, but that hers are not as serious as she first believed. The reader understands that the world still moves on, no matter how sad or despondent she may feel. But, rather than feel isolated and alone by that fact, she should instead feel that the natural world is calling to her, reminding her that she is part of it.
Both Mary Oliver and Walt Whitman see Nature as our source and comfort. They seem to think that denying Nature is to deny our nature. This admonition always makes me think of the Puritans; they tried to curb, deny, or downright outlaw every natural human instinct or proclivity or, at the very least, force it into some unnatural constraint. The Puritans had a healthy respect for nature itself, but they didn't revere or celebrate it. That would have been a Sin. They could have used a little bit of Mary Oliver.
Speaking of which, here she is, reading Wild Geese.