Monday, June 02, 2014

In Which I Kick Off Dept. Of Nance Poetry Month And Discover Another Good Thing About NEO

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.

Wild Geese

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.

photo credit


  1. Thank you for the shout out! I had not read this poem but love it and your analysis of it. And I'm sorry for your bad day; doesn't it feel as if our body betrays us more and more these days? Or maybe it just makes itself heard more than it used to. My re-found joy in yard work comes with new found aches and pains, but I will not give up just yet. Take care of yourself today, my friend.

  2. I love to read poetry, and I wish I could write it. Oh, I can write song parodies and limericks, but I have neither the talent nor touch for anything serious. When I attempt serious poetry, I always find the results embarassing. If it doesn't rhyme it comes out pretentious and sophomoric, and if it does rhyme, it turns into country/western lyrics.

    I am thankful for the true poets, and thankful to you for giving me a new poem to ponder for today.

    Let me know when you need a good song parod, though. I try to follow in the footsteps of Tom Lehrer, Allan Sherman, the Smothers Brothers, and Wierd Al Yankovic.

  3. I have liked this poem since the first time that I heard it. I was in a yoga class and our instructor, a Buddhist, read it to the class so that we could reflect upon it as we did our asanas. It brings me peace just to read it today, decades after the first time I became aware of it.

  4. Thank you for sharing this lovely poem! My troubles are slight today, and yet it was like cool water, refreshing and fresh. I don't know how else I would describe it.

    I'm sorry that your new meds are giving you grief. :( And your stupid landscaper friend should shut the hell up.

  5. Oh thank you, Nance, for making Mary Oliver your first poet. I had abandoned modern poetry altogether until I discovered her. I love your discussion of the poem too. Wish I had had you for English in high school!

    I do hope that you will find some relief for your migraines soon. Not a lot of quality in life when one is in pain.

    And yes, your landscapernonfriend should learn to keep his mouth shut. It is none of his business.

  6. Karen S--How lovely to see your name and comments here, my friend! We owe one another a long chat. I do hope you have been happy and well.

    Somehow, Mary Oliver had escaped my notice my entire life--as a reader, as a teacher, as a writer. I don't know how or why, but I'm grateful that is no longer the case. She is like a Buddhist Mother; she soothes, gently teaches, and urges us toward individualism and betterment through returning to Nature.

    Thank you for your kind concern. I have had fewer headaches, but I seem to have more side effects. What's worse? Not sure.

    J@jj--I'm glad that this poem was like a brisk little breeze for you. Even moreso, that your troubles are few these days, especially after such a busy time with so many Maya Milestones. I have been thinking of you as you close one chapter and ready yourselves for the next. So bittersweet!

    Ally Bean--I can imagine several of Mary Oliver's poems being yoga-appropriate. They are lyric in the very best way.

    fauxprof--"You do not have to be good."

    I feel the same way, to be perfectly honest with you, about 95% of my own poetry. It's overworked, pretentious, and plain old Trying Too Hard. I was daily intimidated by the raw talent of my students, and if they were that good at the ages of 16, 17, 18--why did I dare even try?

    The trick is to just write. And write and write and write. Love some of it and feel okay about hating the rest. Be willing to kill some, save some, and cobble pieces of others together. Go get a set of magnetic poetry and play. It's freeing. And you will learn to love the fun of it.

    Or, just continue to read and love it as an appreciator. That's wonderful all on its own, as you (we) know.

    Rose--I think your analysis of aging and not doing so as gracefully as we may like is perfect.

    I stopped at your site and have been duly impressed by your energetic outdoor projects. Gracie, though...she's tougher to impress than I am.

    Thank you for your kindness. And again, for Mary Oliver.

  7. This is a new author for me and I can't thank you enough for the poem and discussion. Terrific!
    In emulation, I've got one poem up on my site, but the discussion is not very good. What I find is playing through my mind is poetry that has been meaningful to me at various times in my life and what the impact was of each one. I may twist your poetry month to do that, exruciatingly boring as it may be to anyone else but me.

  8. Mary Oliver: I had not heard of her, either, and really enjoyed this poem— even more so in her reading of it. I love the progression of what I'm going to call "you are nobody / you are somebody / you are everybody." And the incredible imagery that arises from simple language well-constructed. I think my favorite line might be "let the soft animal of your body love what it loves."

    Your comment about the magnetic poetry--- so true! I had those stuck all over my fridge years ago. Initially, I was bogged down by my left brain looking for the perfect word I wanted. One day I decided to give myself only a few seconds to choose each word and just worked as fast as I could without being overly analytical. The results were surprisingly good for fridge poetry! I had a parallel experience to this when a friend of mine convinced me to join her in a painting class. I spent hours getting frustrated because my efforts at still life looked just that: deader than a doornail. One day when I was contemplating what to sketch, I gave myself ten minutes to sketch my friend at her easel. She loved the sketch and said it was the best thing I had produced. I thought it was primitive and needed a LOT of work, but she kept insisting that it really resonated with her. All of which goes to prove that sometimes the right brain is right, and needs to be let out of its cage before the left brain has a chance to dash all of its hopes.

  9. What a great poem and I love your analysis of it! I think I learned of Mary Oliver from Veronica, but I'm not sure. I know I haven't explored her work since I learned about her. I need to do more exploring and pleasure reading for sure.

    So sorry you are dealing with so much, Nance. Remember what you've always told others ... the fact that there are those who have different or more "serious" woes doesn't diminish your own. But if hearing those words from Mary Oliver does put things in perspective and "help, then I'm all for it. Last, I'd say there's a reason that your friend's specialty is plants.


  10. Shirley--I need to follow my own advice more often, right? Thanks for that timely reminder. What I say is stellar and brilliant of course (!!), and I do believe in allowing time for some bitching and wallowing. I guess that my overarching frustration was that, at age 55, I thought I had left all of my Body Issues and crap behind. It's a terrible thing when monsters we thought we had conquered can still creep up on us and, at a weak moment, grab at us again.

    Thank you for the grin re: your last remark. I think you are probably right about that.

    Ortizzle--Yes, yes, yes. My whole approach with my Creative Writing classes was "Creativity Within Limits." Whether it was within a time limit, subject limit, form limit, or something else, my students almost always had some sort of limitation. They whined something awful, but it was when I took all limits away that they were most at sea and truly panicked.

    It's a paradox, really. Your limits on yourself are most restrictive. "I HAVE TO BE PERFECT." But when you say, "I have only ten minutes," your need to produce anything at all in order to fulfill that requirement and fill a void is more important than perceived quality. Does that make any sense at all?

    We used magnetic poetry in class often. And in partners. The cooperative poems that ensured were astonishingly excellent. As I said, those students intimidated me every single day.

    Mary G--Oh, thank you for your gratitude! It is entirely my pleasure, believe me.

    I know exactly what you mean. Reading a work as a teen makes an impact upon you one way, whereas later on, it means something much different. I find that fascinating. What a terrific idea! I may steal that later on in another post entirely.

    I am so happy to see you here. Does this mean you have resolved your spat with Blogger?

    Rose--Look how many new fans of Mary Oliver you have created! She owes you one. (One what, I know not.)

  11. I love Mary Oliver! She's one of those poets whose poems make sense - whether you skim the surface or dive underneath.

    I've been so crazy busy the last three weeks & totally forgot about poetry month. Darn it! I would have posted a poem last week to help celebrate. And now this week is almost gone & today I wrote something whiny about The Goldfinch when I could have written a flash poem for you instead :)

  12. Bug--Never would I want to be the source/cause of anyone's distress. Please relax and enjoy Poetry Month whenever and however you want to.

    Go read some Mary Oliver. Enjoy this gorgeous weather with your birds and flowers and The Professor.

    And don't forget to breathe.


Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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