from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 28 October 2012

inspirational poetry: Mary Oliver's Red Bird

There are poems for academics, there are poems for poets, there are lyrical poems for a broad swathe of the population, there is experimental poetry for a few, there is formal verse, and there is the poetry of the heart, known as ‘inspirational poetry’.

I like them all, and my own personal preference is for poetry that speaks to mind and heart alike, integrates and transcends them – in other words, poetry in which mystery still vibrates, but without the crude sentimentality of the confessional overly-emotional spewing. Yet, if a poem has no heart, it doesn’t do it for me. Scottish poet John Burnside is perhaps an example of an excellent poet who fulfills those two criteria, and has the poetic skill lacking in so many who attempt this.

But today I’m thinking about the place of inspirational poetry.

And while it may not always ‘tick the boxes’ of the more rigid values of ‘good poetry’, there is an important place accorded inspirational poetry, or the ‘praise-song’, in a culture. It’s a way of keeping soul alive in a materialistic reductionist time. What it does is bring together matter and spirit through the medium of the higher feeling nature. The language is often simple; the vehicle shouldn’t get in the way.

So I’m thinking Rumi. And David Whyte. And John O’Donohue. And one of our best-loved contemporary inspirational poets is Mary Oliver, the American poet living on Cape Cod.

I’ve loved her poems for as long as I can remember. One of the things I like about her work is that she knows that the beautiful and terror co-exist, and that we need to make room in our hearts for both. Even more significant, we have to find a way to love the world despite, or rather with, its terror. Look at this:

How I linger

to admire, admire, admire

the things of this world

that are kind, and maybe

also troubled –

roses in the wind,

the sea geese on the steep waves,

a love

to which there is no reply?

(from 'Heavy')

And 'Gannets', below, a personal favourite, says in one poem what I’d say the whole body of my own poetry is attempting to articulate:


I am watching the white gannets

blaze down into the water

with the power of blunt spears

and a stunning accuracy –

even though the sea is riled and boiling

and gray with fog

and the fish

are nowhere to be seen,

they fall, they explode into the water

like white gloves,

then they vanish,

then they climb out again,

from the cliff of the wave,

like white flowers –

and still I think
that nothing in this world moves

but as a positive power –

even the fish, finning down into the current

or collapsing

in the red purse of the beak,

are only interrupted from their own pursuit

of whatever it is

that fills their bellies –

and I say:

life is real,

and pain is real,

but death is an imposter,

and if I could be what once I was,

like the wolf or the bear

standing on the cold shore,

I would still see it –

how the fish simply escape, this time,

or how they slide down into a black fire

for a moment,

then rise from the water inseparable

from the gannets’ wings.

From NEW AND SELECTED POEMS by Mary Oliver. Copyright © 1992 by Mary Oliver.

I haven’t yet bought her latest collection but, as I’m not well at the moment, I’m giving myself an hour on the sofa in the afternoons. This is greatly enhanced by poetry, so I bought myself as a treat three books of Oliver’s that I didn’t previously possess.

Swan, a new collection, was the first I dipped into. I have to say that I was really quite disappointed; it feels to me like a ‘makeweight’ book – a bit slight, overly simplistic, too slender in terms of quantity (which wouldn’t matter if each poem sang, or enough of them did) – and at times annoyingly patronising and didactic (I’d give you a quote except I’ve managed to lose the book). Oliver is in her seventies now, and the book feels as if it’s been born from the pressure of needing to publish.

Thirst I have yet to read.

Red Bird (Bloodaxe 2008), though, is gold. Many of the poems made me shiver, and there is a more directly personal presence here – Mary Oliver declaring love – in addition to her praise-songs for the natural world. This feels like a genuine drawing-together of her lived life and its depths of immersion in the human, as well as the not-human, world.

In some of her later work, including in this collection, she uses the word ‘God’, which is not so comfortable for some people, I imagine; and to the extent that it’s a monotheistic term, I’m one of them. However, I read it as not so much an ‘Our Father who art in heaven’ term as a general way of describing a metaphysical world, the world of pure energy, spirit. It’s hard to find words for this when they are often so tightly bound to a particular structured religion, and therefore come with a lot of baggage. ‘Great Spirit’ is a possible term, but clumsy, of course. We could say ‘The One’, meaning whatever it is that transcends the individual ego and holds us all together in union. But in truth there is no easy term, and ‘God’ is a simple way of expressing the Creative, whatever one considers that to be.

That apart, many of these poems do vibrate with a felt sense of living both in and beyond the physical world, and that sits easily for me.

I said above that Oliver doesn’t flinch from the darker places even as she praises the light. I value that. There is a poem which enjoins us to ‘Love Sorrow’, speaking of the presence of sorrow in a life as a small child whom we need to care for:

‘Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must

take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her

into her little coat, hold her hand,

especially when crossing a street...’

I found that image and injunction quite moving, and also useful personally.

The Red Bird of the title is the subject of the opening poem:

‘... perhaps because the heart narrows

as often as it opens –

I am grateful

that red bird comes all winter

firing up the landscape

as nothing else can do.’

As an archetypal psychologist, I resonate with that image: birds being of the air element, the mental nature, symbolically, and red being the colour of vital (in both senses) elemental earthy and heartful passion (as well as of sacrifice) there is a lot that vibrates behind this symbol.

Red Bird also closes the collection:

‘“Yes, I was the brilliance floating over the snow

and I was the song in the summer leaves, but this was

only the first trick

I had hold of among my other mythologies...

...If I was the song that entered your heart

then I was the music of your heart, that you wanted and needed,

and thus wilderness bloomed there...”’

In this collection are too Oliver’s environmental and political concerns: industrialisation, desecration, the Iraq war, ice-floe meltdown. (At times there is an echo of another great American poet, Jane Hirshfield.)

Perhaps the most moving sequence though is the cycle of love poems at the core (‘heart’) of the book: ‘Eleven Versions of the Same Poem’. Some lines at random:

‘I don’t want to live a small life. Open your eyes, open

your hands. I have just come

from the berry fields, the sun...’

‘I am the pledge of emptiness

that turned round.

Even the trees smiled.’

‘Now comes the long blue cold

and what shall I say but that some

bird in the tree of my heart

is singing.’

Apt, for the first frosts here in England.

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