Monday, April 20, 2009

Mary Oliver: Red Bird

Lately, I've been day-dreaming about which poems to use in my summer Poetry Writing for Kids workshop. It's a fun, but difficult exercise...kind of like having to pick out just a few pieces of candy out of a blimp-sized bag of tasty treats.

Though my class is geared toward 3rd-5th graders, I'm the kind that doesn't like to narrow the field to "children's poetry" (although there is plenty to choose from there.) So when I started thinking about a nature-inspired unit, my thoughts drifted immediately to Mary Oliver. Her simple, elegant, sharply observant, and sparse poems are filled with exactly the kind of wonder and beauty I am hoping my students will tune in to.

Over Easter, I picked up Mary Oliver's 2008 collection, Red Bird. (Her newest collection, Evidence, is scheduled to hit bookstores this month.) As expected, it is filled with rich images from the natural world that plant themselves in your mind and stay with you all day. The poet Stanley Kunitz has wisely said, "Mary Oliver's poetry is fine and deep; it reads like a blessing."

I was particularly struck by the poems in this book that concern words, and specifically, the writing of words. On one hand, Ms. Oliver ponders, words are everything. But on the other, they are nothing. She puts the image of herself, constantly finding beauty, joy, and anguish in writing and manipulating language, against the image of the red bird, the fox, the owl. In the natural world, of which she writes so much about, there are no words. And yet even without words, there is no shortage of beauty, joy, and anguish there. Without words:

"the trees flourish,
the toad leaps,
and out of the silent dirt
the blood-red roses rise." (From "Both Worlds")
Below is one of the poems on this topic that I intend to use for my class. I hope you'll have a chance to pick up a copy of Red Bird and read the rest. It is indeed fine and deep and reads like a blessing.

Percy and Books (Eight)
by Mary Oliver

(note: Percy is Ms. Oliver's dog)

Percy does not like it when I read a book.
He puts his face over the top of it and moans.
He rolls his eyes, sometimes he sneezes.
The sun is up, he says, and the wind is down.
The tide is out and the neighbor's dogs are playing.
But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!
The insights, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.

Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough.
Let's go.


You can listen to Mary Oliver reading from her poetry (she begins with a Percy poem) at the Lannan Foundation. (Thank you to One Poet's Notes for the link.)

Mary Oliver's biography is available at Poetry Foundation.

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