In this poem, Mary Oliver tells us clearly what she wants to accomplish when she writes poems. It’s a high order. Some might say impossible. My brief comments follow.
I want to make poems that say right out, plainly
what I mean, that don’t go looking for the
laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves. I want to
keep close and use often words like
heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish
the question mark and her bold sister
the dash. I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daisies and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be
songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.
© 2005 by Mary Oliver in New and Selected Poems Volume Two, p. 4
Published by Beacon Press
The lovely photo at the top is deceptive. It omits the everything of those fields Mary Oliver is crossing. In particular, it should include “daisies and everlasting and the ordinary grass.” What is this thing called everlasting? Think invasive pest, cudweed, or more properly, American everlasting. In case you haven’t met up with it yet, here’s the other photo I might have put at the top.
When I read this poem about writing poetry, I hear Mary’s emphasis falling on beauty. Everyday beauty that wants to be seen just as it is, not dressed up. Unfortunately, this includes beauty that doesn’t always strike us as beautiful. We prefer words like ‘invasive’ and devote time to keeping them out of our fields and gardens.
Just as creation includes everything, so Mary Oliver wants her poetry to honor everything, no matter how beautiful or invasive or downright ugly we think it is. Hope and promise, hearts of faith and the light of the world point to the unseeable, never to be underestimated or second-guessed due to our timebound, limited sight.
I wonder whether Mary Oliver knows her poem begs to be preached. She sets a high bar for herself and for us–whether we write poetry or not.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 January 2020
Top photo found at pinterest.com; invasive American everlasting photo found at http://www.invasive.org