Please, Please Me: Reverie on My Childhood
Fall Break, Day One: 15 Observations

Beautiful Words: The Poetry of Mary Oliver & Jeanne Murray Walker

Evidence If you pick up a collection of modern poetry, you would probably not use the word "beautiful" to describe what you would find there.  The language can be coarse, the images jarring, the implicit and elitist assumption being that most people just won't "get it," so why bother.  At the risk of engaging in gross generalization (which it is), most modern poetry is dark and inaccessible and, even if you try to read it (which most people won't), the task is daunting and darkening.  However, there are exceptions, even wonderful exceptions, so if you do not read poetry and are willing to start, I recommend you begin with Mary Oliver or Jeanne Murray Walker.  Neither are prone to sentimentalism and both employ earthy imagery and craft words that scatter light from every page.

Oliver, now 74, imbues her poetry with images of the natural world informed by walks from her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts.  Walking is, in her view, a part of the poetic process.  Her latest book, Evidence, is no exception to this pattern, as it is filled with images of yellow finches bathing, swans, creaking wings of buzzards, snowy egrets, rain, clouds, and trees, just to name a few, with Oliver maintaining an inner monologue reminiscent of Emily Dickenson, though with more accessibility.  In every poem there is a subtle meaning, a reflection, powerful in its slightness.  Often, she addresses the "Lord," or God, and yet her religion is likely not orthodox but more the mysticism of Emerson, Thoreau or Whitman.  Here is one pleasing example of her craft:

The Trees

Do you think of them as decoration?

Think again.

Here are maples, flashing.
And here are the oaks, holding on all winter
   to their dry leaves.
And here are the pines, that will never fail,
   until death, the instruction to be green.
And here are the willows, the first
   to pronounce a new year.

May I invite you to revise your thoughts about them?
Oh, Lord, how we are all for invention and
   advancement!
But I think
   it would do us good if we would think about
these brothers and sisters, quietly and deeply.

The trees, the trees, just holding on
   to the old, holy ways.

Simple yet profound, accessible yet not pedestrian, Oliver's poems are rich with ponderings on the meaning of natural things and well worth spending time meditating on.  To truly enjoy them, read them aloud.  Poems become three-dimensional when you not only see but hear them.

New tracks While nearly all of Oliver's poems are rooted in nature, Jeanne Murray Walker's somewhat more complicated verse dips into relationships, emotions, normal everyday affairs like putting children on a school bus, as well as nature.  Reading through her latest offering, New Tracks, Night Falling,the first thing you notice is that the poems are often longer than those of Oliver, both in line length and total length.  This makes you slow down.  The other thing you observe is that the references to Christianity are more direct, though certainly religion is not the topic of most of the poems.

Staying on the topic of trees, you'll see some similarities and differences between Oliver and Walker:

What the Trees Say

At breakfast, the heart of the egg looks like pure
gold.  Sunlight lifts the morning like a lever,
and even before I step outside, I see a river
of sparrows rise and scatter through the dawn.

That's when I tell myself, Look here,
you don't have to hurry.  Don't have to arrive
anywhere on time.  Don't have to decide how far
to walk across the lawn or whether to carry on
into the woods. 
I pull on my jacket.  Breezes scatter
the yellow leaves.  The trees are whispering,

It's fall.  Got to strip down.  Got to let the sky in here,
make a place for birds.  Got to reach further
down in the earth.  Got to hunker, children,
got to hold still enough to feel the wings flutter.

"Reading a poem is like following tracks to an interior realm," says Walker in the preface, a realm of deep questions like "why I am so prone to do what I don't want to do," or "how is it possible to overcome the deep loneliness of being a seaprate, conscious human being," or "why does grace sometimes visit us out of the blue?"  She describes poetry as a "wistful groping toward the truth" and poets as "organizers of the hunt."  She's right.  If you sit long enough with good poems, they raise questions that lead to the mysteries that only God has the key to, that only He can reveal or absolve by His presence with us.  In fact, the main tool I would pack for the hunt is a mind filled with God's words, a flashlight for the journey.  Not only that, I want God along, because I know that though I may not find all or many of the answers, I will have Him, and in Him I have all I need.

Read poems.  Start with Mary Oliver and Jeanne Murray Walker.  Read God's words as well.  Sift the poets' words with the words of the One who made us.  It may take time, but it's worth it.

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