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Mary Oliver's Contributions

March 1, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I never needed a reason to love the world, I simply just always have. With its faults and near-misses, its greed and its hope. I love the way it is patched together like a great quilt of countries and languages, mountains and deserts. Most of all, I love, and am humbled by the fact that somehow I participate in that great, complicated quilt. And so, many years ago, when I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s poetry, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Oliver passed away in January of this year and to speak of her in the past tense grieves me greatly. Fortunately, her words remain so that her light is not altogether lost.

Oliver’s childhood was a brutal one, and yet somehow she turned around and made such beautiful things as the world had never seen. To create beauty from difficult circumstances is the first reason we should admire her. Mary Oliver turned to nature as the first place which gave her comfort. She avoided her family by walking out among rivers, flowers, and trees, but she also came to see struggle as part of the natural world. In fact, hope, in part, arrives as a result of struggle, and Oliver is eternally hopeful.

Her early work finds joy, ecstasy and divinity through nature. Then, in poems like “Rage” and “The River” she begins to address her personal pain and loss of home. She concludes “The River” with: “Home, I said./ In every language there is a word for it./ In the body itself, climbing/ those walls of white thunder, past those green/ temples, there is also/ a word for it. / I said, home.” It is an acceptance that home can be transient, not permanent. Every one of her poems grapple with big questions about love and faith, courage and forgiveness.

Many years later, she would say that she hardly knew herself in those early years. She said she had to go out and find herself, which she did by stumbling over rocky trails and along muddy rivers. That she taught herself the language of nature is the next reason that we should admire her. Countless people have quoted from “Wild Geese” or “Morning Poem” on blogs, mugs, letters, etc. Oliver’s language did not glorify or transcend nature, but put humanity squarely back into it. These poems, among many others, inspired friendship, imagination, and openness. She placed the human world within the most glorious riches of the earth, and then asked for us to witness that glory. The final sentence of “Wild Geese” is: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting - / over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” She reminds us that we are to participate with nature and to imagine that presence as part of one complicated family.

Oliver’s work has always been profound and moving. Yet, near the end of her life, she began to explore spirituality. In Blue Horses, she discusses all types of faiths as she herself battles cancer. Yet, once again, she finds that beauty is itself the answer. In the poem “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” she expresses sorrow about Marc’s career cut short by World War I. She writes, “I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses/ what war is./ … I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc./ Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually./ Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” In this poem, the natural world and the human-constructed world collide with dangerous and negative results, and still, Oliver finds beauty and names it. She responds by attending to both Marc’s life and death in a way that offers him thanks. It is this attention to detail which will make us kinder. Again and again, she asks us to use imagination in order to remind us of our connections.

During her lifetime, Mary Oliver won many awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. In addition to her writing career, however, she also taught at Bennington College. She inspired others to seek answers to big, daunting questions. Therefore, her teaching pursuits offer one more reason to admire her. At the end of her short essay titled “Upstream,” Mary writes:

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She paid attention in a way that few humans find time for anymore. Furthermore, she invites all of us to do the same. Mary Oliver’s works never fail to inspire. And yet, certainly, if she were here today and reading this, she would defer not to her work but to the land itself, to the birds and skies that fly above all of our heads.

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Imagination in Flight

November 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin has her protagonist, Genly Ai, travel to the distant planet Gethen which has no birds or flying insects. As a result, the communities there never even thought to attempt flight and their language has no word for flying. It is no wonder, then, that the people mistrust Genly who arrives by airship. It is also easy to see why Le Guin chose this scenario. She masterfully removes something which we often take for granted (that there are flying animals and insects) and then demonstrates how it impacts imagination. (For the record, there are many other major differences between our earthly world and Gethen, but I’m only talking flight today. I definitely recommend the book for all of those who are curious about science fiction experiments.) In chapter thirteen, Genly Ai and another man are sharing folktales about the places where they are from. Genly shares the story of flight. He remarks that he is not talking about a spirit world, but the real world. He says, “’Not by flapping their arms, you know. They flew in machines like cars.’ But it was hard to say in Orgota, which lacks a word meaning precisely ‘to fly’; the closest one can come has more the meaning of ‘glide.’ ‘Well, they learned how to make machines that went right over the air as a sledge goes over the snow.’” Of course, in order to communicate, language restricts Genly Ai to analogies of the place where he is, so he focuses on a common machine from this icy climate, the sled.

Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The history of flight is extremely curious and inspiring. The history of aviation includes such fascinating, bold, strong personalities as Emilia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, the Wright brothers and many, many others. However, I was caught by surprise recently when I discovered how little I know about lighter-than-air ships. In reading Ships of the Air by Lyn Curlee, I saw again that same spark of curiosity that often drives human invention. Curlee writes, “One day, after watching ashes from a fire float upward, Joseph Montgolfier folded a piece of paper, held it above a fire, then watched it fly up the chimney. Joseph believed that the smoky fire created some kind of gas that was lighter than air. Only later did he and Étienne understand that hot air rises. But Joseph did understand that if a big enough bag could be filled with hot ‘gas,’ the bag would rise off the ground – and could carry a person with it.” From there begins a wonderful, rich, global history layered with politics and science. After Montgolfier demonstrated a hot air balloon flight to Marie Antoinette, the world took note. Furthermore, his balloon contained a flight crew of a sheep, rooster, and duck, whose survival proved that the atmosphere was higher than previously imagined. Many people became interested in designing and flying airships. In the late 1800s, they became popular sights in France, London and Germany. And as war broke out, the zeppelin famously became a machine of war, rather than leisure.

Back when the Montgolfier brothers were experimenting with cloth and paper balloons, however, there were many misconceptions regarding flight. Curlee writes that in 1766, “Professor Charles’s balloon floated 15 miles into the countryside, landing near a small village. The villagers, who thought the balloon was a monster, destroyed it with pitchforks.” This mentality echoes what Le Guin describes on her science fiction world, Gethen. It took an incredible amount of imagination to believe in flight. Furthermore, imagination is, in part, problem-solving. For the story of airships to become any kind of success indicates that man must often think outside the box. I return to Joseph Montgolfier watching ashes rise. With possibility comes the calculated risk of burning the paper. Understandably, then, the airship has faced many problems, such as weather, flammability, size versus weight ratios, etc. Curlee continues, “The story of lighter-than-air travel is mainly the story of failures. People who designed airships made many mistakes – often because they were experimenting with new technology, sometimes because they were careless.” Even so, hot-air balloons still inspire our imaginations. They predate airplanes, have been created by humans all over the globe, and have been put to many uses (including a German mail service). One thing is clear, flight of any kind captivates humans. The ability to defy gravity, even for an instant, sparks the imagination.

Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

These photographs were taken at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Every October, over five hundred balloonists visit Albuquerque for its unique landscape and wind patterns. Balloons feature colorful designs, brand names, and cultural icons (Darth Vader is often a big hit). To see five hundred balloons floating up in the sunrise certainly inspires the imagination!

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How to Read a Poem

November 6, 2015
 

Last week, we posted Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats as a lead into the idea of spirit and/or death. Today, we intend to look more closely into that poem to find out what exactly is the mood, tone, spirit, quality and devices of the poem. Critical thinking will help inform the way we read Keats, but also the way we read poetry in general.

Keats felt passionate about the imagination's ability to become more than human, to link into a more perfect presence or spirit. With each poem that he wrote, he further developed his own imagination. In this poem, Ode to a Nightingale, his muse is the nightingale itself. Do you think that he was listening to the nightingale when he physically wrote this poem? Is there ever actually a bird in the poem? Is there a rhyme scheme or meter? If so, does it add to the poem's meaning? Is there a spirit or presence in this poem? If so, what spirit?

Keat's poem is on the left, and to the right of Keat's ode, there are a number of questions that may help as you read through the poem. Obviously, there are many questions that can be asked when reading a poem. This deals with some major questions of this poem. We encourage you to add your own questions (or answers) about Keat's ode in the comments below. Enjoy!

 

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats                                 What is an ode? Why to a nightingale?

 

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

     My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

     One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,                               Why are the lines indented this way?

     But being too happy in thine happiness,—

          That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

               In some melodious plot

     Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

          Singest of summer in full-throated ease.                 Why does the happy nightingale's

                                                                                          song reinforce the narrator's sadness?

 

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been

     Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country green,

     Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!            Why does Keats focus on nature?

O for a beaker full of the warm South,                                What images is he portraying?

     Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,                      Does this aid with emotional support

          With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,                of his point?

               And purple-stained mouth;

     That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,           What does it mean to leave the world

          And with thee fade away into the forest dim:          unseen? Why would he want this? Is

                                                                                           this what a nightingale does?

 

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

     What thou among the leaves hast never known,          What does the narrator know that the

The weariness, the fever, and the fret                                 nightingale does not?

     Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

     Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

          Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

                 And leaden-eyed despairs,

      Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

            Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

 

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

      Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,                                   Why does he invoke 'Poesy' here?

      Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:                What does that allow him to do?

Already with thee! tender is the night,

      And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,             Why does this poem take place at

            Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;                   night? Could it also take place during

                  But here there is no light,                                 the day?

      Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

            Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

 

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

     Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet                     Why is darkness embalmed? What is

     Wherewith the seasonable month endows                     the mood throughout this stanza?

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;                      How does mood affect the poem?

      White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;                  Is the nightingale still present?

             Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves; sad?         What has happened or is happening to

                And mid-May's eldest child,                                the narrator? To the nightingale?

     The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

           The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

 

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time                                 Who is the darkling? Do you feel its

     I have been half in love with easeful Death,                   presence? Does the narrator? How?

Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

     To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,                            Why?

      To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

           While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

               In such an ecstasy!

     Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—             Why does the narrator have ears

          To thy high requiem become a sod.                          in vain? What is a sod?

 

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!                     Why was the bird born?

     No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

      In ancient days by emperor and clown:                        What is the connection between

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path                     the narrator, emperor and clown?

     Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,    Why an emperor and a clown?

          She stood in tears amid the alien corn;                     Why Ruth? How is corn alien?

               The same that oft-times hath

     Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam

         Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

 

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell                                      Why does Keats repeat 'Forlorn'?

      To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

      As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.                              Who is the fancy? And how would

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades or deceive?          fancy cheat? Who is the narrator

      Past the near meadows, over the still stream,                saying goodbye to?

           Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep

                In the next valley-glades:

     Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

         Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?                     Why does he end the poem with

                                                                                             a question? Does the answer matter

                                                                                             to you and/or to the narrator?

 

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