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Atesse, from a recent series of paintings

One aspect of having online access into every nook and cranny of the world (as well as the latest thoughts of millions of bloggers) is being able to see into the extraordinary range of human passions. I’m not referring to the largest engine of human cyber passion, pornography, but the myriad of quirky unexpected subgroups. Now every person whose is just crazy about 12th century Scottish coins or training small dogs to knit scarves while pushing a baby carriage can find each other and convene.

It does cause me to pause and wonder just what it is about a particular activity or field of study that captures the passion of a person. There are the large rivers that carry lots of us, like being a sports fan. Then there are the smaller streams that we might have believed were just rivulets only to discover lots of other people floating along that same waterway. I know a guy whose many eccentricities have included a life long passion for airlines. It didn’t stop at hanging around airports and tracking the serial numbers of American Airlines jets: he would force his wife and family to spend their vacations near the bone yards of retired jets so he could keep track of his favorite planes. One of the first things I discovered when the web became ubiquitous was that plane spotting is a huge passion all over the world and not as peculiar a passion as I would have supposed.

My passions are more familiar but they run deep. I have been painting since I was 17. I have never grown tired of making or looking. It is the first thing on my mind when I wake up and has been for most of my life. There’s just no logical explanation for how deep a passion can run.

I thought of the nature of passions reading David Kirby’s review of David Orr’s new book about poetry, Beautiful and Pointless. From the review:

In the end, poetry matters to the people it matters to for the same reason that anything appeals to anyone, which is that they love it. Orr uses the title of the poet Edward Hirsch’s book “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry” to suggest that people who fall for poetry fall hard. In a book filled with excellent quotations, he surprisingly doesn’t cite James Dickey’s line — “What you have to realize when you write poetry, or if you love poetry, is that poetry is just naturally the greatest god damn thing that ever was in the whole universe” — but essentially his book says just that.

This will come as no surprise to many. But what makes “Beautiful and Pointless” different from thousands of other defenses of poetry is that, according to its author, poetry differs from music and stamp collecting in that people’s love for poetry is measurably greater than their love for any other activity. Poetry fans don’t just love poetry a little; they really love it.

Which brings to mind a few lines from one of Mary Oliver’s most popular (but still memorable) poems.

From “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.


The Poet with His Face in His Hands

You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes. But to tell the truth the world
doesn’t need anymore of that sound.

So if you’re going to do it and can’t
stop yourself, if your pretty mouth can’t
hold it in, at least go by yourself across

the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets

like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you

want and nothing will be disturbed; you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched

by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.

–Mary Oliver

For years my longtime friend Andrew sent out a Sunday morning letter. His poetic insights are always exceptional as are his observations about life. Because Andrew is less of a talker and more of a writer, I have come to rely on those Sunday morning notes to have some sense of the weather patterns forming over his inner landscape.

A few months ago the weekly notes went dark. Too difficult to keep up the commitment? No longer personally enjoyable? Time for a brief hiatus? I wasn’t sure.

But this morning an email from Andrew appeared. I sipped it slowly and carefully, painfully aware that this may be all I get in 2011. Although I can only hope more are coming.

In addition to including the poem by Mary Oliver, Andrew offered his commentary. Too good not to share.

I had come upon a pretty poem by Mary Oliver making her usual argument, that mankind squats like some unrecycled mason jar on an otherwise untouched hill in Tennessee, giving nothing back. It reminded me of a Robinson Jeffers poem in the Oscar Williams anthology of modern poetry from my teen years when I favored strong statements: “I would rather be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.”

Nature’s hard edge is an appealing ethic. But our weeping is merely the human sound of Nature and as authentic as birdsong, The whine of living is the whirr of our machinery processing the ramshackle software we inherit from eons of earlier generations, a wiring of infinite complexity, mis-coded with contradictions that set us each at individual civil war, but with marvelous power to create.

The poem denigrates human tears, hanging like drab shower curtains between us and nature’s bright river, which leaps “like crazy” through open air in its “jubilation and water fun.” Of all animals, we are singled out, for inhabiting skins of dirty logic and delusion. Yet the feathered bird that sings its birdness does so with limited self-awareness. In contrast, our tears — which fall in dull sheets and hit ground in shapeless splats — originate in a thought, de novo acts of creation. Each salty drop is shot with awareness.

As opposed to the pretty mouth of self indulgence mentioned in the poem, I prefer my own image for the complications of consciousness: Maggie Tulliver plunging her hair into a basin of water to spoil her mother’s hope of curls that day and then, in ill humor at her scolding, retreating in furies of tears to the attic, where she keeps a large wooden doll. At times of overwhelming need to act vindictive, she will drive a nail into dolly’s forehead or grind its unprotesting head against the wall. I adore Maggie, falling in wide-eyed abandon down the deep well into womanhood…

Even in confusion and guilt, we are a necessary step in the direction of God. The placidness of the thrush is already available to us in more primitive layers of our brain. We are in part made up of Oliver’s bird, clean as an arrow moving to its fated target. We are also in part Yeats’ different bird, gold enameled, the artifice of supreme imagination.

Agnes Martin

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.

–Mary Oliver

This came to me by way of Jill Fineberg, author of People I Sleep With. It captures the essence IMHO.

Martin’s studio (she passed away in December 2004)

An unexpected gift on the Times Op-Ed page last Sunday, cohabiting with bleak post election columns by Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd: Six poems marking the end of daylight saving time. The work is all by blue chip poets—James Tate, Vijay Seshadri, Louise Glück, W. S. Merwin as well as the two whose poems I have posted below, Derek Walcott and Mary Oliver. Made my day to read these.

The Green Flash

le rayon vert

And the sea’s skin heaves, saurian,
and the spikes of the agave bristle
like a tusked beast bowing to charge
tonight the full moon will soar floating
without any moral or simile
the wind will bend the longbows of the arching casuarinas
the lizard will still scuttle
and the sun will sink silently with a stake in its eye
bleeding behind the shrouding sail
of a skeletal schooner.
You can feel the earth cooling,
you can feel its myth cooling
and watch your own heart go out like the red throbbing dot
of a hospital machine, with a green flash
next to Pigeon Island.

— Derek Walcott

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

— Mary Oliver

Earlier posts written here about these poets:

Vijay Seshadri
That Was All That Happened

Louise Glück
Quiet Revelations
From the Center of My Life Came a Great Fountain
Thoughts on a Moonbeam for a New Year
Vineyard Watch
What Could Such Glory Be If Not a Heart?
The Love of Forms

W. S. Merwin
Merwin: Past and Present
The Washed Colors of the Afterlife
Walking at Night Between the Two Deserts
Dorothea Tanning: With Our Souls in Our Laps
Here are the extinct feathers, here is the rain we saw


Morning Poem

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

–Mary Oliver

A number of wisdom traditions make the claim that “reality” is exactly as it should be. Many believe that suffering is all in the mind, that it results from desire, a need for love, for approval, for security. If we can give up those misery-making responses it would be possible to just be in this moment, free and clear and at peace.

I have thought about that idea for years. Maybe I’m moving closer to understanding it, but I still feel a lot of resistance. Perhaps that is perfect too, just what has to happen so that I can continue to explore its deeper meaning. After all, what you resist, persists.

Is it our nature to be happy? Oliver has dealt with pain so repeatedly in her poetry, perhaps that is a question that is just meant to float. I for one do not believe the answer is anything short of complex.

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

–Mary Oliver

Poetry seems to do more to capture my state of mind than my own words…Sometimes I feel that the silence of a particular landscape comes home inside you. That is how Ladakh feels to me now. Words will return, eventually, but for the time being I am relying on others to speak for me.

For several years now my Sunday mornings have begun with the anticipation of reading the weekly email from Andrew that arrives in my inbox around 7am. I have saved every one he has sent to me, and for good reason. Both he and his wife Kathryn, in addition to being two of the wisest and most generous people I know, have PhDs in English literature and write with a gifted effortlessness. No one can offer life’s primal wisdom with such a silky touch as these two dear friends.

This morning Andrew excerpted a paragraph written by Kathryn who is spending some time in Cumbria. Currently she is researching the life of Hartley Coleridge, the eldest son of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for an upcoming conference. Her words about journals speak to so many of the feelings I have been having recently about how we witness our own lives and, in turn, share that witnessing with others. So many of the blogs that move me speak to this.

I do wonder whose imaginal dream we are. I’ve come across that Mary Oliver poem* before–and read it again with assent and wonder. I had a new understanding yesterday of the importance of keeping journals. A journal is a seed–not to insure the survival of the personhood of any one life, but just the opposite–to allow creation to happen again and again in many more minds from this one seed of the vast universal. To let go of one’s attachment to the “story” of one’s life and allow it to be whatever it is in any other’s mind is like allowing the body to decompose into nutriment for other life forms. I got a sense of that glorious impersonality in Mary Oliver’s poem.

Kathryn in Cumbria

*The poem by Mary Oliver, When Death Comes, was posted here a year ago.

In my studio yesterday, I felt some of the old familiar feelings of “flow”, a sense of things that invariably calls up an unforgettable line from Mary Oliver: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” It’s a quiet place, that soft animal of my body right now. But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it will result in a trove of brilliant paintings. The soft animal of the body is just the beginning of a long, long process.

Meanwhile the city of Boston is aflutter with Celtics pride, a gaggle of green shirted fans clogging the streets while duckboats full of extremely tall men bring on paroxysms of cheers. This morning the Boston Globe ran a piece called “Winner Takes All the Envy” countering the city’s euphoria with an article about how hated Boston fans have become. One New Yorker was quoted saying, “You used to think about lovable losers. Now they’re all out. They want to show off.” Probably true. After years of suffering, Boston sports fans are, well, a bit over the top. (I include myself in this.)

With so much euphoria so evident everywhere here, this is probably the perfect day to offer up a counterposition that comes at life from the other end. This poem by Fleur Adcock is more in the vein of the via negativa than most of her work, but its dark power is one I know.


There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse
and worse.

A few words on solitude, discipline and the nature of being interrupted, by Mary Oliver:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone
rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits.
Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought
which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without
interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until
it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily
have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart–to pace, to chew pencils, to
scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from
another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that
whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing into
the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone
the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday
is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only
to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

It is this internal force–this intimate interrupter–whose tracks I would
follow. The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place,
its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that?
But that the self can interrupt the self–and does–is a dark and more
curious matter.

–From Blue Pastures

Mary Oliver, poet