Treasure your beautiful world

Wild Geese (a poem by Mary Oliver)

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.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It was the wonderful Gena Hemshaw who introduced me to Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Wild Geese’, and I have loved it ever since. Like Gena, I’ve found that the poem comforts me in times when the thoughts in my head are loud and tangled. And like Oliver herself, I’ve sought comfort in nature for many years. Looking up at the sky and down at the ground and out to the horizon reminds me of my place in the world. It heals me, if only temporarily.



Light on water.

 

But how true are Oliver’s words these days? How much longer can we find solace in nature if by nature what we mean is the way things are naturally, the way things have always been and the way they always will be?

It is impossible to ignore the discussion scientists and environmentalists are now having across the world about the climate crisis, the climate emergency. (That is, it’s impossible to ignore unless — and forgive me for saying this, but I will say it anyway — unless you are a white, male, middle-aged politician who thinks only about getting re-elected for another term of leadership.) It is impossible, too, to ignore the evidence of it as we go about our days. Wildfires, polar ice melt, rising land and sea temperatures, coral bleaching, floods, not to mention pandemics — here they all are, right in front of our faces.

These days when I read Mary Oliver’s words I feel despair rise thick in my throat.



Clouds above water.

 

I work very hard to inject a positive note in the posts on this blog. I don’t intend this to be a site for depression and maudlin pondering. But I cannot find a positive note to interject here when it comes to our changing natural environment.

I can only urge you, each and every one of you, myself included, to read Oliver’s poem often, to experience the feelings that arise in you as you read it, and to do what you can, in whatever way you can, to treasure this beautiful world while we still have it. Meanwhile the world goes on, Oliver says, but does it anymore?



Dying light.

 

Lately I’ve been reading …

This is my work

Other people’s words about … the sea

Vale, Mary Oliver. I’m not a fan of all of her work — not by a long shot — but I do love the way she observed and wrote about nature: intimately, intricately, affectionately, quietly, humbly.

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I Go Down to the Shore
by Mary Oliver

That lovely voice

Tipping point

Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

by Jane Kenyon

I have never known whether this poem, which I love, is about gratitude or fear, joy or sorrow. Is Kenyon, who experienced terrible bouts of depression throughout her life, describing her gratitude for, and joy in, the small moments of beauty and happiness she has experienced on the day she describes in her poem — the peach, the walk with her dog, the work she loves, the time with her mate?

Or is she describing her fear of losing these moments — of tipping away from happiness, back down into sorrow and depression?

A small thing, this, of beauty.
It might have been otherwise.

It’s a see-saw, this poem, I think. The poet hangs in a kind of precarious balance between one life and the other, without knowing when the hinge will tip her down again, away from the things she loves. It might have been otherwise, she writes at the start, and then, later, sadder and more afraid: it will be otherwise (my emphasis).

Gratitude. Joy. Fear. Sorrow. Grief. Yearning. They’re all there in this one, short poem.

The poetry lover

Other people’s words about … poetry

It rained all day before we went for dinner at Melissa’s. I sat in bed in the morning writing poetry, hitting the return key whenever I wanted.

from ‘Conversations with Friends
by Sally Rooney

I had to smile when I read these words. In the last years of his career, my father, who was a professor of English literature, taught an undergraduate course on poetry. Ever a traditionalist, he taught his students to appreciate the form of the poems they read as well as the words themselves.

Though I’ve never studied English literature at university level, through some mysterious form of osmosis I absorbed some of what my father was teaching his students. Through this process, I now have a passing acquaintance with terms like blank verse and iambic pentameter, and with poetry forms such as sonnets and villanelles. And I’m with my father on this: discipline is a vital ingredient in poetry writing. Where there is no recognisable form or structure to a piece of writing, there is no poem: there are just words on a page, with a few strikes of the return key employed for good measure.

Funnily enough, when I happened to mention to my father that I was writing this post, he alerted me to this piece by David Campbell in The Australian, which my mother had first pointed out to him. In it, Campbell bewails the lack of rhyme, metre and set forms in current Australian poetry. Perhaps these things will become fashionable again one day. We can only hope.

Meanwhile, do you have a favourite poem? What is it? Here are the links to some of mine (including one by David Campbell), each of which transcends the strict form in which they are written in order to produce something more than its parts:

Tea, by Jehanne Dubrow (a sonnet, and the excuse for my tea-themed photo today)
Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, by Dylan Thomas (a villanelle)
On the Birth of a Son, by David Campbell (a sonnet)
The Watch, by Frances Darwin Conford (a strict rhyming system of which Campbell would most surely approve)

When the wall comes down

Other people’s words about … the view

When I was about fourteen or so, I studied a poem in school by David Campbell, called ‘On the Birth of a Son‘. It was a sonnet, and I didn’t know much about sonnets, except that Shakespeare wrote a lot of them. It never occurred to me that a contemporary poet might write one.

This sonnet by David Campbell has stayed in my mind ever since. It remains one of my favourite poems. Here it is, in its entirety:

The day the boy was born, the wall fell down
That flanks our garden. There’s an espaliered pear,
And then the wall I laboured with such care,
Such sweat and foresight, locking stone with stone,
To build. Well, it’s just a wall, but it’s my own,
I built it. Sitting in a garden chair
With flowers against the wall, it’s good to stare
Inwards. But now some freak of wind has blown
and tumbled it across the lawn — a sign
Perhaps. Indeed, when first I saw the boy,
I thought, he’s humble now, but wait a few
Years and we’ll see! — out following a line
Not of our choice at all. And then with joy
I looked beyond the stones and saw the view.

On the face of it, this poem is about becoming a parent — the fears new parents have; the limitations parenthood imposes on their lives; the unexpected, unsettling joys it rewards them with. So it might seem strange that Campbell’s words have always resonated with me, though I have chosen, deliberately, never to become a parent.

But that’s the thing about great poems: they are universal. They manage to strike a chord in different people at different times for different reasons.

For myself, every time I read this poem I am moved by the contrast the poet makes between the act of looking inward — at his safe, pretty, cosy life — and the act of looking up, out, to glimpse a view of the world, and his life, beyond.

The view beyond. Recently, I went on a camping trip to Yorke Peninsula with my partner. We returned to the same spot we always return to, driving down a long, undulating, unpaved road to get there — one that is corrugated and dotted with puddle-holes, dusty with sand stirred up by other passing vehicles, and lined with dense thickets of bush where brown snakes lie coiled, sleeping.

Each day we passed our time the way we always pass our time there. Each day we woke to the same view.

But it is a spectacular view: of open skies, of wide seas, of sprawling cliffs and rolling sand dunes. It is a view of a life beyond the life we normally lead. It is a view that sets me free.

I live a small life: small things give me pleasure. I consider myself, mostly, lucky to be able to live this way. And yet it’s good to escape from time to time: to look up and out and beyond.

And to see, again, the beautiful view.

Notes

  1. You can find a link to this poem here and here.
  2. All the photos in this post were taken at our campsite in Yorke Peninsula in February this year.

The colour of water

Other people’s words about … the sea

It was my mother who introduced me to one of the most vivid descriptions of the sea I’ve ever read:

The character and life of Sydney are shaped continually and imperceptibly by the fingers of the Harbour, groping across the piers and jetties, clutching deeply into the hills, the water dyed a whole paint-box’s armoury of colour with every breath of air, every shift of light or shade, according to the tide, the clock, the weather and the state of the moon. The water is like silk, like pewter, like blood, like a leopard’s skin, and occasionally merely like water.

Kenneth Slessor

 

 

Note:
Click here to find out more about Kenneth Slessor. He is most famous for Five Bells, a poem which is moving in its own right but which also, if you are sea-obsessed like me, contains some hauntingly beautiful sea-imagery, particularly in its last stanza.

Antipodean daffodils

Other people’s words

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced;
but they out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed — and gazed — but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth, 1804.

Wordsworth’s poem always makes me think of these groundsel flowers:

13 August 2014 024

They appear on the dune in late winter —

— like Antipodean daffodils.

13 August 2014 028

Quote

Other people’s words – Part I

A poem I love:

[Original source: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-watch-11/]

The Watch

I wakened on my hot, hard bed;
Upon the pillow lay my head;
Beneath the pillow I could hear
My little watch was ticking clear.
I thought the throbbing of it went
Like my continual discontent,
I thought it said in every tick:
I am so sick, so sick, so sick;
O death, come quick, come quick, come quick,
Come quick, come quick, come quick, come quick.

Frances Darwin Cornford

I love this poem –
its feverishness; its rhythm; its deceptive, despairing simplicity.

The best poetry, I think, is simple but true.

Note:
This is the first in a series of posts where I feature poems or quotes I love. It was Jane Brocket who first alerted me to Francis Darwin Cornford. She quoted another poem by Cornford on her blog.
(Oh, and in case you’re wondering – the quoted material itself doesn’t count towards my self-imposed quota of twenty-one words!)