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A well-crafted poem is a world unto itself: each word crafted upon the anvil of precision, then blasting psychic space for the inexperienced.

Such was my experience reflecting upon the poem, “We Should Be Well Prepared,” found in Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird (2008), fitting end-of-the-year advice for us all. It’s about endings that stay ended.

What a subject, you might ask? Only Oliver’s acute sensitivity and observation, honed since a child, taught her to voice the inexpressible, in the multi-valiance of life teeming around her. Therein, she dipped into the pool of metaphor and the ordinary became extraordinary.

So in this poem, she selected nine metaphors that brush the reality of death, inherent in all created life, and invited us to look with her: the plovers’ cry of goodbye, the stare of the dead fox, the falling of leaves and long wait for their return, the ended relationship, the effects of mold and sourness upon foods, the rushing of river water and days – “…never to return.”

The final metaphor bites hard:

         “The way somebody comes back, but only in a dream.”

Whatever shape our diminishment comes, it will come. Mary Oliver’s life-long experience reflects her commendable attitude and willingness to teach others. I’m sure she was well prepared the moment of her last breath, January 17, 2019.

Seems to me that words have emotional lives: some retain their vibrancy; others, relegated to bone piles. That’s where revision is critical, because serious readers look for depth that resonates or challenges the human condition—at least that was what I thought until I came across the word, praise, depleted in my perception.

Yet, it appeared on the dedicatory page of Mary Oliver’s book of poems, Why I Wake Early (2004): “Lord! Who hath praise enough?” a line taken from “Providence,”composed by the priest-poet George Herbert in seventeenth-century England. Through relishing Oliver’s poems drawn from her Provincetown morning walks, I awoke to the wordlessness of praise: more an attitude toward the unfolding of creation in pristine moments than windy definition.

In Oliver’s artistic process, I sense praise empowered her co-creation with God who disciplined her senses, helped her search for apt words, then clothed revelations with simple, often one-syllable words; their explosive energy still jars her listeners, readers, and decades of fledgling writers who have sat in her classes and workshops.

Her poem, “Snow Geese”, describes such an experience: the flock, “being the color of snow, catching the sun,” their rapid flight leaving her bereft with painful/delightful longing. She concludes: “What matters/is that, when I saw them, /I saw them/as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.”

Another poem, “Look and See” concludes with heart-prayer: “Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we only look and see.”—After having been regaled by a gull’s pink foot casually scratching its stomach of white feathers as it sailed overhead.

Such gifts are always offered and elicit praise within the openhearted—but as George Herbert says, there’s never enough…

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