Thursday, 26 August 2010

What poetry is teaching me

I haven't always read poetry in my life.  There have been long periods where I haven't read any, followed by the discovery of a new poem which leads me to the poet.  Anna Akhmatova.  ee cummings.  Sylvia Plath.  John Donne.  Ted Hughes.  Mary Oliver.  Wendy Cope.  Yevgeny Yevtushenko.  John Keats.  These are the main poets that I have discovered and loved since I was about 18, when I loved my first poet, Sylvia Plath. Nikki Giovanni.  Wordsworth. 

Why read poetry?  In this day and age, when people are afraid of poems, why do I read it?  Because it teaches me that I am not alone in my feelings.  That others have felt as I do, both the wild rage of pain, and the tumultousness and gentleness of love.  When I read poetry, I discover myself.  I learn about new ways to express how I feel, and how I am in the world.

What I didn't know, was that poetry actually teaches me.  I could look at Neil Gaiman's poem "Instructions" and say it teaches me about how to come to fairy tales, which it does.  I could look at John Keat's "On a Nightingale" and say that I have never heard a nightingale sing yet, though I know it through Keat's eyes and ears.  I have been by that hedge where he hears the nightingale sings every time I read that poem, and the glorious song he hears is echoed by the birds I do hear, over here in Canada - though not the same, I know, not at all.  I really want to hear a nightingale so I can go back and read the poem and see what Keats took from the singing.  I could say that Dr Seuss gave me my first love of rhythm and words that rhyme in the English language, and that I actually had a line from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas occur to me last week, the line 'we are we'. 

But truly, poetry came alive for me today, when I opened Mary Oliver's book of poems Red Bird, and re-read her poem "Invitation".  Because the day before I had seen this little bird (pictures above, he's yellow and in the middle of the thistle bush, just above) while out for my walk along the Ottawa River.  I was lucky, he was there yesterday and allowed me to take these pictures.

Later, I went to look up what it was and when I read that it was an American Goldfinch and that it loved thistles, I thought to myself, I know that.  But how do I know that?  So imagine my delight and joy when I read "Invitation":

                                Invitation                      by Mary Oliver

Oh do you have a little time
  to linger
     for just a little while
        out of your busy

and very important day
   for the goldfinches
      that have gathered
        in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
   to see who can sing
     the highest note,
        or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
   or the most tender?
       Their strong, blunt beaks
          drink the air

as they strive
      not for your sake
         and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
  but for sheer delight and gratitude -
     believe us, they say,
        it is a serious thing

just to be alive
  on this fresh morning
     in this broken world.
       I beg of you,

do not walk by
    without pausing
       to attend to this
         rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
  It could mean everything.
     It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
        You must change your life. 

This poem, from the first time I encountered it, has captured and retold what I try to do in my own life, the values that I live by, and how open I try to be to the natural world around me.  I didn't know I was also learning about goldfinches, and that Mary Oliver was writing what was real:  but there the little goldfinch was, on Tuesday and yesterday, beside the path, digging into the thistles and burying himself in the seed fluff.  Isnt' it a marvel how nature has made it, that in searching for food, the finch releases the seeds from the pods at the same time?

How cool is it that in this photo and the next, Mrs Goldfinch joined her mate on the thistle bush (he is in the lower left corner, she is the dark brown bird shape on the top right of the bush)?  They were singing back and forth to each other while they watched me take his picture above first, then when deemed safe, she flew down to join him.  

As for the poem itself, it is among the handful of poems that I want to print up and put on my walls to remind myself how to I want to live.

As a writer, this poem and Rilke's idea that I must change my life - it is from Letters to a Young Poet, and what one must do in order to write, is also moving through me.  I also think that slowing my life down, taking the time to see around me, to see nature, is something I consciously try to do every day.  I can't write, if I don't see in my own life what is there.  And only by seeing, can I bring back to my writing my own voice and view.

This is why I read poetry. 

If you read poetry, who do you like? What are some of your favourite poets, and poems?


Molly said...

Thank you so much for this post, Susan!

I do not read much poetry, mostly because it is intimidates me. I always feel inadequate when I read a poem because I just don't seem to "get" it.

But this one by Mary Oliver that you quoted is absolutely beautiful, and thought provoking, and makes me wonder why I am rushing around all the time and never seem to take just 5 minutes out of the day to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of nature.

Thank you!

Gavin said...

Susan, as Molly says, thank you so much for this post. It reminds me that I need to pick up one of the several books of poetry I keep on my desk and read. M.S. Merwin, Louise Gluck, John Haines and Mary Oliver are some of my favorite poets.

Nicole said...

How true you are Susan, that as we grow older poetry seems to take on a new refreshing perspective. Your comment about Seus also hit a cord with me, I think he would have been my first encounter with rhyme, that I can recall, anyway. I dont know why, but I too have been attracted to poetry of the last couple of years, not to write (I would'nt know how) but to read. Donne, Plath, & Whitman & Wordsworth to mention a few. At a book fair last night I came across what appears to be a well-read 'Faber Popular Reciter' collated by Kingsley Amis, and it has all the time honoured, and some would say 'common' poems. You may like to listen to Van Morrison's The Best of Van Morrison Vol Two which is quite soulful, in particular "Rave on John Donne" quite mesmerising.Thanks for another thought provoking entry.

Michelle Fluttering Butterflies said...

One of my favourite posts in a really long time, thank you. I don't read a lot of poetry. Sometimes I go through phases, but that doesn't happen often or last very long when they do come along. But I'd like to read more and make the sort of connections to my life that you do..

Bybee said...

I just discovered Al Purdy...what I like is that he looks at something from a particular point of view that no one ever has before and you're changed. For example, his poem that imagines what the earth and its inhabitants made of flowers when they suddenly made an appearance on earth..gorgeous. I'll never be able to walk past flowers again without thinking of that poem, that idea. Poetry enhances us.

Literary Feline said...

It's been ages since I last read an actual book of poetry, but I do read the occasional poem now and then. I don't talk about poetry much because I feel inadequate to talk about it. I love the sound of poetry, the language and rhythm. But when it comes to the meaning, and understanding poetry, I always feel like I fall short.

Susan said...

Molly: Sometimes poetry intimidates me too! Really, and then I slow down to read it, and read again, and then think that it's what I bring to a poem too that helps it make sense. If that helps at all. I like Mary Oliver's poetry because I feel like she and I are talking together about what nature means, she the teacher, I the student.

Gavin: I'm so happy you are reading poetry - and Mary Oliver, also! I picked up one of Louise Gluck's books of poems to try too.

Nicole: Thank you so very much for the Van Morrison recommendation! I am going to see if I can find it later, since it sounds fascinating. I am interested that you are reading lots of poetry also now. I wonder if we are becoming more reflective as we become older? Or things are getting richer with meaning as we have variety of experience? Thanks for your lovely response.

Clover: thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. And really, it comes in waves for me also. I went through a period of time - about 10 years - when I read very little poetry, though I always carried a book of general poems - Immortal Poems collection - so I guess I always kept some with me.

Bybee: I can't remember if we read any Al Purdy in school or not. I think I did, certainly in my Can Literature class at university. However, my teacher never told me what you just did! What Al Purdy does for you, Mary Oliver does for me. I find it lovely and fascinating when a poem, and a poet, can reimagine the world for us, or reinterpret it into a new way that we understand at a level that is almost beyond words. It's a kind of magic.

Literary Feline: I don't often talk about poetry for the very same reasons! I have always been afraid that I would see something different in the poem than the author put there, and it has taken me years to realize that we bring ourselves to the poem also, so that what is revealed is me, and the poet, and the world, and in the poems that move us then everything is changed, like Bybee says. At least, it is sometimes! I feel incredibly privileged that Mary Oliver's poetry speaks to me this way.