What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us time and time over. They are to be happy in; where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question brings the priest and the doctor in their long coats running over the fields.
What are days for? Days are where we live. Sometimes when I wake up, these lines run through my head like a mantra, a suggestion, or a prayer. My work life has changed a lot in the past year as I left my job at a non-profit and accepted various part-time teaching positions. Sometimes the list of “stuff” and chores I know I have to do each day feels very heavy. But if I happen to remember this poem, I might slow down.
They are to be happy in; where can we live but days?
They are to be happy in: to greet the morning’s work with a glad heart, to go slow enough to notice all the beauty and funniness in my life. I don’t think of Phillip Larkin as a particularly hopeful poet (here’s another of his poems I like, very different that this one) but in this poem he did infuse some peace.
Today, I am sitting in silence for a minute writing this, and soon I’ll be off to enjoy a delicious lunch with a couple of old, dear friends. May your day unfold with living and happiness, too.
P.S. If you’re still reading, you might have noticed that my “Poem of the Week” isn’t exactly weekly. It’ll likely be more occasional than weekly, but I think I’ll keep the title just for fun. Happy Saturday, friends!
I’ve discovered the secret to reading more, and it’s this: not reading. Kinda. It’s audiobooks.
As a child and teen, I read constantly, as much as I could, during meals, in the bathtub, for entire weekends. But as an adult, I rarely sink down into a good book. I wish I did, but when I have the time, I usually spend it doing it something else (cleaning, planning or grading, Toon Blast) I think it’s partly because I never want to leave the world of the book I’m reading.
Whatever it is, I finally accepted it, and I discovered audiobooks. Audiobooks actually solve two problems, the problem of not reading much and the problem of the incredible boredom of walking the dog.
So here are three books I’ve listened to lately and loved:
Jessi Klein is my new best friend. She’s never met me, so I’m probably not hers, but I’m okay with that. Listening to this book, which frames motherhood as a hero’s journey (YES) ands visit such topics as the mindnumbingness of playing with toddlers (YES+) , was like a wonderful conversation with a friend who really gets you. It’s smart, laugh-out-loud funny, and thrillingly irreverent. One of my favorite essays in this book began by Klein declaring (admitting?) that drinking made her a better mom. It’s one of the most honest and smartest things I’ve read about women and alcohol and as someone who had a glass of white wine as soon as possible after giving birth (which was like five days because I was trapped in the hospital with preeclampsia but still), I loved it. I read a review of this book in which the reviewer said the book made her “feel seen.” The work of mothers in our society is often invisible or ignored; Jessi Klein reveals both mothers’ heroic work and mothers’ flawed humanity. Stop what you are doing and get this book.
I wrote about this book in another post, but I’ll say a bit more here. I always saw this bestseller in bookstores and dismissed it as a sensationally titled self-help book for people who weren’t me, but then a colleague mentioned it and when I couldn’t get the audiobook I really wanted from the library, I decided to give it a try. It’s actually terrific. It’s Buddhist at heart, and it’s funny, honest, and has the potential to change your life. Check it out.
Now that you’ve seen it, notice your emotions. I have taught this poem to poets of all ages. The most common emotional response to this poem seems to be rage, followed by determination, followed by delight.
Check it out again. What words can you find? What phrases begin to appear?
This poem is a little riddle, a puzzle. Can you try to write it out, to decode?
Okay, spoiler alert below, so don’t read farther unless you’re done with the puzzle.
This poem is one of the most perfect examples ever of the way that poetic form can become its content. The poem IS the grasshopper, jumping through the field. Arriving. Becoming.
Poetry is fun, yes? What other subjects could you write about in this way? A kangaroo? An ocean wave? A hurricane, a butterfly?
There is much to unpack in this poem, but I am a day late and a dollar short with this post. So just a few thoughts: first, this poem makes me think of the concept that guilt is a choice. It makes me think of how a person can be happy in their own life when so much violence is occurring elsewhere. And it somehow allows its readers that possibility, of living happily during the war, both within and without the emotion of guilt.
Second, this poem’s punctuation is interesting. For one, it illustrates the effectiveness of the comma splice. A comma splice is when you separate two complete sentences with a comma, like
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
There’s something powerful about that run-on sentence. It’s admitting something.
And: what about the parenthetical-as-prayer:
It asks for, and offers, a kind of grace in the same breath.
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Last week, I wondered if a daydream could be an intention; today, I wonder if a question can be a prayer. Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
To say this poem is my favorite would be both an understatement and an untruth. This poem saved my life, I might say instead. And I love so many poems… but this one is special, and I know I am not alone in my deep connection to both this poem and all of Mary Oliver’s work. In my graduate program, some of my peers scoffed at Oliver’s work: too easy, too feminine, too simple. I disagree. And anyone who pictures Oliver as some angelic saint floating through the fields with no problems and no flaws should listen to this interview with her from On Being. She smoked, for one thing. I was so happy when I learned that: she wasn’t perfect. She was one of us, her devoted readers: imperfect.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? The love of my life gave me my first book of poems by Mary Oliver when we were in college. I was a tragic poetess, or imagined myself as one, anyway, bewildered with sadness of the world, a Plath and Sexton devotee; he handed me hope in the form of a slim volume called The House of Light.
(All of Oliver’s books have beautiful titles: The House of Light, Dreamwork, Wild Geese, Blue Horses, A Thousand Mornings…)
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? I had these words laid out in rainbow cutout letters on a long, wide strip of paper that my artist mother-in-law helped me decorate and laminate; I posted the strip up above the chalkboard in my very first high school classroom so my students had to see them all the time.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? The question settles on me, some mornings, right after I wake up, when I am sleepy and dread leaving my bed’s thick covers. We face so much, in a day, all of us do. This week I gave this slideshow to my students about how every choice involves suffering: they are studying moral dilemmas and I am listening to The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck audiobook when I walk the dog (highly recommend). To say my life didn’t turn out how I imagined it might would be my second understatement of this post, and some mornings the weight of all the chores and choices is nearly suffocating.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? One of my best friends, another poet, remarked one day that this question is tongue-in-cheek. As in, yes, make your plans, and life will do what it will. I had never considered this possibility; it shocked me. But I like this reading, too. It makes me think of life an an animal itself, a swan, a black bear, a grasshopper. A black dog, maybe. What are you gonna do with this animal, this warm beast you didn’t wholly choose and can’t control?
In my new(ish) job as an adjunct instructor at CO School of Mines, I am teaching a course called Nature and Human Values. It’s a interesting mix of about one million topics–ethical frameworks, writing skills, environmental and engineering dilemmas galore–and this semester, I’ve decided to end each teaching week by sharing a poem with my students, and on my site here. (One of my daydreams/goals for 2023 (can a daydream be a goal?) is to write on my site more.)
Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” appeared originally in 1917 and was subsequently published in his first book, Harmonium, in 1923. In a letter, Stevens once wrote that “this group of poems is not meant to be a collection of epigrams or of ideas, but of sensations.”
I love the idea of a poem as a collection of sensations. You can feel the sensations as you read the poem: a shadow, a shiver, a breeze…
I also found this essay from Stone Soup (a super cool lit mag whose target audience is children under 13) that contains some fun facts (Wallace Stevens was not a full time writer but an insurance company executive!)(which is such a hopeful fact for young writers who know they also have to make $$) and wonderful moments of analysis–
like the observation that the phrase “twenty snowy mountains” IS the sound of pointy mountains:
TWENty SNOWy MOUNtains. (For my poet readers: those are trochees!)
And, last, I spend a few moments doodling/thinking about the poem on this (blurry) printout:
And: bonus! The image of the blackbird at the top of this post is from the British Library website, which also features a recording of the blackbird’s song. Listen here.
Hope you enjoyed Poem of the Week! Edition 2 will be out next Friday.
I’m starting a new and occasional feature of this website called “Stuff I’m Into.” Pretty self-explanatory, yes?
Today I’d like to highly recommend Nonprofit AF. Written by Vu Le, this blog comes out Monday mornings and points out inequities in the world of nonprofits and ways to fix them, in very funny and wonderful ways. Reading this blog each Monday puts me in a good mood. Vu’s writing makes me feel hopeful and gives me specific ideas for changing the world for the better.
Although I no longer work in a nonprofit, Nonprofit AF hits themes that are relevant to education.
Check it today’s post, which celebrates some lesser known MLK quotes, here.
Exciting news! I was honored to get a call a few weeks ago that White Lung was selected as the winner of the North Carolina Poetry Society’s 2022 Brockman-Campbell Book Award. Even though I am a Coloradan now, I still consider myself a North Carolina poet, and the contest’s rules did too (and if you’ve read the book, you’ll know it’s the teensiest bit about NC (ha). The judge for the contest was Jeff Worley, a recent Poet Laureate of Kentucky.
Next! Well, really, first—I have some events this week! On Friday, June 17, I’ll be reading at Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Lit Fest at 4:30 PM with a terrific lineup: Sandra Newman, Lija Fisher, Nicky Beer, Daniel Levine, Ellen Barish, and Abby Chabitnoy. Register for this free event here.
And on Saturday, July 18 from noon to 1:00, I’m honored to be part of Writing Big, a panel about the role social justice plays in the stories we tell. I’ll be participating with Suzi Q. Smith, R. Alan Brooks, Angelique Stevens, Mathangi Subramanian, and Jade Wong-Baxter from the Frances Goldin Literary Agency. The event costs $20-30 to attend; you can register here. I *adore* the people on the panel, even the ones I haven’t met yet. Check them out if you don’t know them by following the links attached to their names in the lineup. (I am especially a huge fan of R. Alan Brook’s What’d I Miss; if you don’t know it, set aside an afteroon and read it all.)
And last but not least, on Saturday, June 25, the Colorado Book Awards ceremony takes place at Denver’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House. I’m still kinda shocked to be a finalist with so many amazing authors. Get tickets here.