Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Mary Oliver reading her poetry

I went to Mary Oliver's reading in Lewiston on Monday night, and yesterday I got caught up in an afternoon game of Scrabble at the shop instead of blogging about it. So today: the 300-seat auditorium was packed, standing room only, and because she was reading at a podium on the corner of the stage, she said people could sit on the stage around her. By the time she started, the stage was filled, and folks were still sitting in the aisles and standing along all the edges of the room. We were all giddy with our good fortune at being there, truly.

She started with Our New Dog - Percy, The Ponds, Lead, and When I am Among the Trees (after saying "I am very fond of trees.... I have said good morning to the same tree for thirty years."). I won't go through the list of everything she read, but here are many: Wild Geese (she said she'd read it aloud until she was 90, if people still wanted to hear it), Oxygen, At Blackwater Woods, Some Questions You Might Ask, The Summer Day, In the Storm, Bone, Am I Not Among the Early Risers, The Swan, and In the Evening in the Pine Woods.

A few comments between poems (I paraphrase):

She wants to "...write something to persuade the unconverted to read a poem from beginning to end," so she uses a few techniques, including the single sentence poem, "...because conscientious readers will usually feel obligated to finish all the sentences they start," dashes and semicolons, questions to the reader, etc. Then she read The Sun, a 36-line poem consisting of just one sentence.

Near the end of the reading, she said, "Where's my swan... can't have a poetry reading without a swan..." before finding and reading The Swan, one of my very favorite poems of hers.

The question-and-answer period at the end of the reading was wonderful; the audience members were intelligent and moved by her reading, and except for a few clunkers the questions were decent. Here are about half:

How do you keep your sense of wonder every day? She said, "I go outside immediately." The natural world, nature, always awakens her gratitude.

Will you comment about poetry as a vehicle for social change? She said, "Absolutely, poetry can be a vehicle for change, look at Neruda, at Milosz.... Remember history and hope. Write for each other, to lift everyone up together, the time for personal stories is over." She thought that the women's movement and various ethnic groups had done so much to better the world, but the time has come for people to focus on humanity, rather than groups of any kind. And, "You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar..." so she often writes about the beauty and mystery of the world.

When did you first conceive of yourself as a poet? She said at a young age she read a lot, to get into another world. She needed to be in another world, for reasons that she won't go into because we would find them boring (!). She read a lot of poetry, and because children learn by imitation, she began to write.

Who are her favorite poets? "I'm stuck in the eighteenth century. Whitman, Emerson - though he's not really a poet - Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth." More recent poets she mentioned were Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz and the translations of Robert Bly.

Do you ever look back at old poems and re-work them, or want to change them, or do you let them lie? What is your writing technique? She said once it's done, it's done. She's changed and she moves on, though of course she sees things she could have done differently. She carries a pencil or pen and a notebook to make notes on the fly, then writes in a quieter location later. She has a typewriter. She doesn't have a computer or use the internet. To recycle, she often writes on the blank back sides of manuscript pages people have sent her. "Really."

Do you practice a formal poetry technique, do you recommend that, or should you just write what comes to you? She said, "I don't know what a 'formal poetry technique' is.... I wrote The Poetry Handbook so I wouldn't have to teach anymore...." (The Poetry Handbook covers various poetic devices.) About writing what comes to you: "Make a promise to yourself, and show up. Like Romeo and Juliet in the orchard - if they hadn't both showed up, no love story! ... Be reliable (with yourself), pay close attention, then you can write what comes to you, because it will be coming from that deeper place, because you are ready. Go to the orchard."

One of the last questions was about the sense of place in her poems, Provincetown in particular, her home. She said that it is her home, but anywhere could have been her home. She's taken the same walk every day for thirty years, and she's gone deeper and deeper with her attention and devotion to the same place, over and over. And when she's away, she can't wait to get back. Her dog Percy (after Shelley) will be upset with her for being gone - Where were you!

She signed books in the lobby afterwards. Ryan and I waited in line for a time, bought her brand new book Thirst, hot off the press. I brought six others with me, including the book I take with me whenever I travel, House of Light. What a night, I can't even tell you. I was in tears half the time, her words are so moving and cut right through everything like a sharp knife. She's one of the only living writers who can really get me right where I live. A few times after she finished reading a poem, the last line of it - final, direct, charged, strong - would float out there in space over our heads and you could have heard a feather hit the floor it was so silent. Then everyone would breathe again, like a long sigh. I've never heard anything like it, it was extraordinary. And she's just this wiry little person. But she has such presence, and extreme dignity and humbleness all at the same time. The last lines from The Summer Day, in House of Light:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Thank you for posting about your experience at the Mary Oliver reading. As a fan, I found it very interesting.
Thanks for commenting. Her reading was one of the highlights of my year. I am still thinking about it. I recommend getting the cd Beacon Press released last spring - Mary Oliver reads a selection of her poems - called "At Blackwater Pond." It is very beautiful, very moving.
You lucky lucky girl.
Wonderful to hear about this. Mary Oliver is a rare treasure and it is wonderful to share feelings about her writing and her thoughts. I have the "At Backwater Pond" CD and especially love that. It looks like a fine book and hearing her read is a special pleasure.
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