Monday, March 08, 2010

the Mary Oliver experience

UCLA's fabled Royce Hall was abuzz. Anticipation of the diminutive Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver was high. The space was packed.

“Don’t worry. I have a voice.” Came Mary Oliver’s opening words answering her own musing on whether or not she would have any volume left after a full days talking marathon. One suspects this is not the first time she’s answered her own question and it wasn’t to be the last of her beautifully idiosyncratic asides that night. The experience had begun.

There is no greater thrill than hearing a fully formed writer read, speak, sing, share their work. In Ms. Oliver’s case the rich kaleidoscope of energy and tone and nuance from over nearly five decades of work in lyrical poetry turned Royce Hall into a Masters class of opening up to the moments of life, amplifying the sounds of self acceptance and engaging the Kensho of self compassion. Rising above mere author reading entering into the strata of full bodied performance artistry.

I’m neither a huge follower of Ms. Oliver nor versed in the vast reverie of her work. Until this quiet Thursday evening I didn’t know anything about her background other than she is a New England poet and one of the best selling poets of all time. What I am is someone who has heard other poets read her work, discuss its beauty and truth and have enjoyed listening to the deeper conversations and rhythms in her verses.

Ms. Oliver energized the intimate soul baring night with a request, breaking the evening open with The Journey written so many years before. The expelling of air and sighs from the crowd hearkened an intimate knowledge of the piece and it didn’t disappoint… its impact taught and tender, The Journey’s inner light glowed brightly guiding the room through an oft told story of leaving the house in which you are currently residing in search of that greater life that is calling. Leaving behind everything familiar to create the space and freedom to hear the sounds of your own voice returning to beloved recognition.

It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Practical and pragmatic, knowing and resolved… All I could think, Ms. Oliver's entire being broadcasts a message of owning yourself, awash and alight and in love with “the marvelousness of being alive."

Like a DJ in the groove Ms. Oliver moved through her reading list, rearranging its order as she talked about immortalizing her beloved four legged companion, Percy, thumbing through pages in search of her next poem, promising Percy would speak three times over the night. She knew where she wanted to take the crowd, this wasn’t her first time at the reading rodeo. Her personality bubbled out with joking cleverness throughout and in offering up a decidedly interior Mary answer to a commissioned writing request “The Poet has been asked to fill more pages” we caught a glimpse into someone who writes because it is what she does, not what others demand.

Struck by how bare and naked the feelings of betrayal sounded from Ms. Oliver’s voice as she shared her deeply autobiographical Flare from The Leaf and The Cloud walking through the steely home of her upbringing, exposing her early yearnings of not belonging and the self exploration and awakening that awaited beyond its confines…

My mother
was the blue wisteria,
my mother
was the mossy stream out behind the house,
my mother, alas, alas,
did not always love her life,
heavier than iron it was
as she carried it in her arms, from room to room,
oh, unforgettable!

I bury her
in a box
in the earth
and turn away.

My father
was a demon of frustrated dreams,
was a breaker of trust,
was a poor, thin boy with bad luck.
He followed God, there being no one else
he could talk to;
he swaggered before God, there being no one else
who would listen.
this was his life.
I bury it in the earth.
I sweep the closets.
I leave the house.

As she spoke into the final words of the extraordinary work, ending with the "this is the dark and nourishing bread of the poem" recalling her earlier brush strokes

But the poem wants to flower, like a flower.
It knows that much.

It wants to open itself,
like the door of a little temple,
so that you might step inside and be cooled and refreshed,
and less yourself than part of everything.

Flower she did. The essence of her self radiated, blossoming with every word she spoke and when she flowed into When I Am Among the Trees from Thirst.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
And call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

A shimmering ripple expanded across Royce Hall glowing into the hearts of everyone present… her offering, such a beautiful expression of the love inside all of us reflected against nature expanding outward amplifying through her voice attune with the sounds of the world.

No more beautiful reminder that everyone is here to shine, with light and love.

Some of Ms. Oliver’s influences seem obvious; Shelley, Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman from the group of Nineteenth century naturalists as she explained during the question and answers, a poet emerges because they have read soul stirring poetry and want to write poetry, but to me the eternal light of her professed love of Rumi resonates through the purity of her expression as she explained, “an artist responds to their environment” and the revealed listening at the core of the effort.

“Make everything in you an ear, each atom of your being, and you will hear at every moment what the Source is whispering to you, just to you and for you, without any need for my words or anyone else's. You are--we all are--the beloved of the Beloved, and in every moment, in every event of your life, the Beloved is whisp...ering to you exactly what you need to hear and know...directly, wordlessly, now and always.”

Ms Oliver opens herself to hearing in that way described by Rumi. She offers her work with the verve of a teacher who demonstrates vibrating beyond reason into action.

It lies within every artist the ability to open up to that other space of source. To respond to their environment... to happily know that the trees, the grass, the sky, the wind can offer everything a soul needs to express itself.

Ms. Oliver in answer to the questions "How did you become a poet? How do you write poetry? How can one become a poet?" explained with eloquent ease... simply "When you read great poetry... You want to write great poetry. There's no mystery, you begin by imitating... Everyone can write poetry... you just need to show up, schedule the time let's say from 2:00 to 3:30 and say I am a poet. Everything I know about writing poetry I wrote in a book, so it would be available to everyone once I stopped teaching. It's all there. I have nothing more to say."

For some people a line of Mary Oliver is a game changer. A step off the cliff. An awakening to the truth. Others may say “Oh. That’s a nice line.” Others still “Huh!?” Whatever the reaction it’s clear none of it matters. The experience is wholly Ms. Oliver’s. Her walks in the woods with Percy, remind us that while writing is a solitary endeavor shown up for to flow forth what’s being called out… she is not alone.

As Joseph Campbell’s words “where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world” rang in my head, this poetic hero pursued her own journey and in doing so our world is all the better for her presence. It's amazing to realize the universal thread of truth that runs through everything... "To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem."

As we lose the night heavens to urban light sources and forever creeping development, as nature disappears into manicured preserved projects, as the concept of external space on Earth disintegrates, we’ll have Mary Oliver’s body of work inspired by her walks in the woods illuminating and reminding us who we truly are and what we in our hearts know we need to preserve.

May her words and truth of expression remind us to fiercely answer the call to our own being. To embrace nature’s sounds and to stay open. To connect to whatever our source is. To live fully in the light of our truth and to reflect the beauty that lies waiting for the call.

Royce hall has held so many miraculous evenings of inspired expression. It’s paraded the hopes of a nation, explored the personal challenges of the individual and eternally showcased the exuberance of lives expressed. Thinking through my personal history at the venue, the diversity of the acts and individuality of the unique voices I have heard echo through the illustrious surroundings bringing my own tune into harmony, sparking the birth of ideas and the light bulbs of connection. It is a privilege to be able to bop across town and soak in an evening of stimulating thought and inspired use of the English language on a campus as storied and stately as UCLA.

Grateful that UCLA live presents these inspired thinkers. Grateful to be reminded of the depths of the human heart and appreciative to our Universities for their endless capacity to broadcast the love that is always available when we are open, channel buzzing, vibrating in a glorious tune.

As Charlie Chaplin said, “time always writes the perfect ending.” Having now experienced the poet reading her own work I can say Mary Oliver always writes the perfect ending and in doing so she has given us a deep wisdom teaching in the poetry of self-compassion.

Ms. Oliver concluded the expansive evening super nova light and bright in a diminutive package.

The crowd on a blissful poetry high. Leapt to their feet floating in the air uplifted by words strung together, shaped and delivered effortlessly.

Having talked about her love of the short poem, Ms. Oliver expressed a deep longing and hope to one day create a brilliant three word tome, I thought it was holy appropriate that a single word echoed off the cheering hands of the standing ovation gaining momentum as Ms. Oliver walked off stage.


In honor of Ms Oliver's dog Percy and all our furry friends who join us in our lives, through our joys and with our loves.

Enjoy David Whyte reading Mary Oliver's The Journey as Ginger the dog waits for a walk.

Melanie Lutz is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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