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National Poetry Month: Lifelines

April 1, 2008

A reporter for our local paper is doing an article on poetry “Lifelines”–lines of poems which have served us in meaningful ways. The Academy of American Poets is encouraging people to think about this; for more information about the project go to their website.

This is a slightly expanded response to her query:

Maybe 8 or so years ago, I received a copy of the Lannon Foundation’s annual report. In it, I found this quote:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

They cited Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” from House of Light.

I knew nothing of Mary Oliver, really, had heard of her and a few of her poems, and liked them all right; that was about it. But this fragment of a poem really spoke to me: What is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? wow!

As a college teacher, I have an opportunity to share–or impose–on my students words and ideas I find important. I put this quote at the top of the syllabus every semester–to get my students to think about this too–to think about they will do with their one wild and precious life–and to let them know too, that I want them to know I care what it is they plan to do, that I see their lives as precious.

Last year, when Mary Oliver spoke at UCSB, I finally bought her New and Selected Poems V 1 which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and which includes that poem, “The Summer Day.” The poem as a whole reminds me of the importance of paying attention, of giving myself the time to be blessed and idle in order to smell, and feel, and see the beauty and energy of life on this earth, and to be grateful to be alive in this and every moment.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I ahve done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Every time I prepare for class, and even while I am teaching, I stumble on the last tow lines, these words, this reminder, this lesson not to waste a single moment. What is it I plan to do?

But the poem that I turn to when I feel defeated, when I need solace, when I feel lost about what to do, is Wendell Berry‘s “The Peace of Wild Things” which I found in Robert Bly‘s News of the Universe:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The last four lines are the most powerful for me–speaking as they do to the patience of waiting for the time to shine, and to a sense of peace and joy and calm that comes from resting–nesting– in grace. When I read this poem, I feel the embrace of the world, and release a deep breath of freedom.

What are your lifelines? please share!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2008 6:49 am

    AP, that’s a great response.

    I discovered Mary Oliver at a crossroads in my life… I could sink into further despair, or I could climb out. This was about 10 years ago. I almost didn’t want to like her, because I thought she was too simple… but it was her beautiful simplicity that pulled me in.

  2. April 1, 2008 7:02 pm

    When I first read her, I thoguht the same thing–this is so simple, it’s stupid. And I still feel that way about some of her poems (that’s what I still think about Ted Kooser!)

    Sometimes the most obvious is the most difficult–like breathing, like observing, like praying…

  3. April 2, 2008 2:10 pm

    You know, this question . . . that furrows brows on students (and non-students) around the world . . . What are you going to do with your degree? . . . What are you going to do with your life? It’s a perpetual question . . . whose answer is always “now.”

    I’ve recognized a habit in my life – of simply happening into whatever groove is left after the wheel has come around. It’s non-confrontational, and has always provided well. But in my (re)uptake of academics – I seem posed toward that question more and more frequently. And still, my answer is most often “now.”

    Though, there’s something about the passionate application of “wild & precious” in presenting the question – that brings a brilliant urgency to it all. I think I quite like the approach – and am eager to retrace my own “lifelines.”

  4. April 2, 2008 3:47 pm

    yes that’s the difference for me too, the key–“wild and precious.”

    i like how you said that–being in the groove left by the wheel–and recognize the danger there. it’s not a choice as much as an abdication of choice, and I don’t think it always answers the question Mary Oliver poses.

    please come backa dn post your own lifelines!! or post them on your own site and link to it here!

  5. December 30, 2008 4:44 pm

    Lovely essay. What you say about Oliver’s work is true. It is easy to despise (not your words, but what I have heard from fellow poets who think her over-simple, over-loved) the simple. And yet so difficult to create it.

    (The mantra should be “Make it Simple” rather than “Keep it Simple”, IMO, because of desire to add accoutrement & “smartness”. It seems true in architecture, anyway. The “cleanest” designs are the hardest to pull off because all is disclosed.)

    I am so glad you included the Berry, and the why of it, for you. I personally appreciate that he took the psalmists words, “He makes me lie beside still waters” (loosely) and humanizes them by calling out the peace of nature, of the natural world. Things that both Oliver and Berry do that make my heart sing and ache all at once.

    My favorite Berry lines from your selection: “And I feel above me the day-blind stars / waiting with their light. For a time” for their brilliant wisdom and patience.

    Well. You got me going, ha! Thanks for pointing this out to me.

  6. December 30, 2008 4:52 pm

    thank you, deb. great idea–make it simple rather than keep it simple… and yet we both know that there is much to appreciate in the complexity and multilayeredness in great poetry!

    yes, those day blind stars–the ancestors there shining on us whether we “see” them or not

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