Mary Oliver; Loving the Work

Many years ago now, when I was struggling to understand the limits of my responsibility towards people who were sad or suffering, my therapist gave me a poem to read by Mary Oliver.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old rug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
was terrible.
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.

I thought it was a wonderful poem that fulfilled literature’s brief, as formulated by Chekhov, that ‘a writer should not provide solutions but describe a situation so truthfully that the reader can no longer evade it.’ I promised myself I would read a great deal more Mary Oliver, but it wasn’t until this year that I finally bought myself a copy of Dream Work, her collection from 1986.  A short while later, I read that Mary Oliver had died, and as is so often the case, a wealth of articles followed that told me a great deal more about her life than I had previously known. What I read was a depressingly familiar story of a woman with immense talent, transmuted into tangible success, who was nevertheless regularly disparaged by the critical elite in the poetry world. So it was for reasons on a number of levels – personal gratitude, solidarity of the sisterhood, and a strong belief that Oliver’s poetry expresses a way of living we desperately need to embrace if the 21st century is to become survivable – that I felt I wanted to do some critical justice to her work.

Mary Oliver was born in 1935 to a sexually abusive father and a neglectful mother.  You would not know this from her poetry which seeks not the release of the confessional, but the relief of turning one’s attention elsewhere. Walking in the woods of Ohio while reading Walt Whitman was her route to escape and renewal. She became fascinated by nature, by self-expression, by the spiritual life. When she graduated from high school, she decided to take a trip to Edna St Vincent Millay’s home in Austerlitz. There she met Edna’s sister, Nancy, formed an immediate friendship and moved in, for several years, to help sort out the late poet’s papers. She went to live in New York and then, on a return visit to Austerlitz in the late 50s, met the photographer, Molly Malone Cook, who became her life partner. The two women lived for the next forty years in Provincetown. Quietly. Unobtrusively. Just getting on with things.  Oliver published her first collection in 1963, won the Pulitzer in 1984, won the National Book Award in 1992. None of this went to her head.

For Mary Oliver’s poetry was – is – a practice of devotion as much as it is – unarguably – an art. ‘If I have any lasting worth,’ she said in a rare interview late in life, ‘it will be because I have tried to remember what the earth is meant to look like.’ If you’ve ever read any Mary Oliver, then you will know that a profound, vital attentiveness to nature is the foundation stone of her work. In Dream Work, the subject matter might be turtles or marsh hawks or starfish or clams, but each receives a portrait of startling vivacity and insight, one that understands the nature of its being. Oh wildlife, you might say to me. Well, lots of poets write about that. What makes Oliver special? And it’s hard to put into words, but I’d say it’s because the looking and the attention matter viscerally to Mary Oliver. It’s not about being clever with words. It’s about finding a way for the poet to be plugged into the main circuit of the universe.

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

This comes from ‘Landscape’, and expresses with characteristic simplicity and directness the bond with the world that breathes through every word of her poetry. But can you guess where she takes it? This is what happens next:

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong thick wings.

I think what Mary Oliver understands is the extent to which we are earthbound animals with dreams of going beyond ourselves. For me, her poems only reach their full potential when humans, and their unbearable humanity, get bound up in them too. Oliver’s poetic patience, her attention, never flinch even if faced with brutality or futility. But unlike so many other poets (and yes, Ted Hughes, I’m looking at you), the violence of nature is only a fragment of the whole, and not necessarily the most important part at that. Oliver taps into the dignity, self-sufficiency, tenacity and grace of the animal world, and she remind us how close our dreams of self-extension are to these other attributes, how much we desire them, how maybe we want them even more than power and violent conquest, but gave up on them as being too difficult, too subtle for us, a long time ago.

‘You do not have to be good,’ runs the first line of one of her most famous poems, ‘Wild Geese’. ‘You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting,/ You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves./ Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ Nature, Mary Oliver understands, is our Home. It is origin and end point, it is sustenance that is both physical and spiritual, it is allegory and information. If the world were not exactly as it is, we could not exist exactly as we are, and it is only the monstrous egotism of man that obscures the nature of our dependence. But if we are completely a part of the natural world, then what we see outside has something to tell us about who we are inside.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

What the critics who underestimate Mary Oliver fail to understand is that her poetry does not ask the reader to analyse it, but to live it.

***

I don’t know about you, but every morning lately, I seem to wake to a world that is a little more crazy, a little more corrupt and unethical than it was yesterday.  It feels like the end of times, or at least the far extreme of an argument pushed to its limits. The argument is, I think, one for selfish capitalism, its components are certainly those of narcissism, venality, grandiosity and intolerance. In the confusion that this has created, I offer Mary Oliver as a kind of North Star by which we might orient ourselves again.

Mary Oliver was not interested in fame or riches, or the spoils of power and influence. No wonder those literary critics were disdainful; she eschewed the great game they were playing in which they decided who was in and who was out. I often wonder whether Oliver had read the psychologist Alfred Adler, who was writing about a hundred years ago with astonishing prescience about the courage we need to find to be normal. Adler believed that we were all longing to be extraordinary in order to overcompensate for early wounds, early fears, and that we equated in consequence being normal with being incapable. This was a dangerous position, Adler felt, because when the project of being exceptionally good failed, then we were tempted to make the leap to being exceptionally bad.

Mary Oliver knew something about this. The poem ‘Shadows’ opens with the lines

Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.

The poem is about the difference between the damage human beings can do, and the damage caused by natural disasters – ‘I mean/ the waters rise without any plot upon/ history, or even geography.’ Oliver writes. ‘Whatever/ power of the earth rampages, we turn to it/ dazed but anonymous eyes, whatever/ the name of the catastrophe, it is never/ the opposite of love.’ The quality of cruelty in the human world is of a different order, rising so often out of the failure of the desire to be exceptionally good, which curdles into feelings of hatred and envy. Though I think we may have created a category of catastrophe that neither Adler nor Oliver imagined, in our new, radical uncertainty about what good and evil look like. But both had the same solution to the problem – and that was to focus consistently on the work we were destined for, the work that is intrinsic to being alive.

Adler believed we had three main tasks to undertake. These are the tasks of friendship, of love and of work. In each case we must attend to learning and understanding what constitutes service to the community, what loving another person means, and what our individual purpose might be. Adler was very firm about the dangers courted by intruding upon another person’s task. (For this reason he was completely against parents ‘helping’ their children to do their homework, but I digress.) The point here is that these are the tasks that are given to each and every one of us to accomplish, and it is not doing those tasks that blights our experience of being alive.

Mary Oliver has an even neater formulation. As far as I see it, she rolls all three tasks into one: ‘To pay attention,’ she wrote. ‘this is our endless and proper work.’ Oliver had a very special kind of attention in mind, and she defined it when writing about her partner, Molly Malone Cook, after she died. She described how:

watching M when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the dark room, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – and empathy – was necessary if the attention was to matter.’

I think, if I read her right, that Mary Oliver is advocating a way of being that is the complete opposite of how we often live today. She had no interest in insecurity, pride, the relentless tracking of threat, the indulgence of competition. Her poetry invites us to turn ourselves outward, away from the demands of the ego, and be profoundly attentive to otherness with compassion and curiosity. And here I bring Adler forward again. The attention we give in this way is not supposed to be extraordinary, and it is not intended to intrude on the tasks of others.  Mary Oliver did not try to save the world; she simply undertook her work of being a terrific poet. She was clear, repeatedly, that salvation was was a problem for the individual. In the poem ‘Dog Fish’ she wrote:

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.

And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging towards them.

And probably,
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

***

Back in 1938, three years after Mary Oliver was born, Sartre made literary history with a character who, staring very hard at a tree, and its root in particular, nearly drives himself mad. The problem with the tree root is that it resists definition in the mind of the male protagonist. Whatever words he chooses to describe it, those words are not precise enough, not satisfying enough, and in this battle between vocabulary and veracity, the real threatens to win. Roquentin risks going eyeball to eyeball with existence and out of this terrifying struggle the doctrine of Existentialism was born. And a bleak, loveless doctrine it is too, exhorting mankind to have the courage necessary to live in an alien and meaningless world, taking responsibility for the overwhelming freedom of being alive. What would Existentialism have become, I wonder, if a poet like Mary Oliver had gazed at that troublesome tree root instead of a short, egotistic, entitled, male philosopher? It would still have been about full presence in the moment, but significantly, it would not have been about the battle for mastery.

Existentialism can be read, I think, as an exhortation not to be exceptionally bad in a world that is indifferent to our attempts to be exceptionally good. It has its chip of a heart in the right place. But it could not free itself from that desire for overreaching heroics. Camus came a little closer to fundamental acceptance in his myth of Sisyphus. Describing how the gods condemned Sisyphus to roll a giant rock to the top of the hill only to have it roll back down every time, Camus said that we must imagine Sisyphus is happy. He meant that the smallness of life might have its pleasures, even if he wasn’t quite sure what they were. When I look at Sisyphus through Mary Oliver’s eyes, I wonder whether he rolled that rock to the top of the hill again and again because he loved the magnificence of the view.

What if we were to swap overreaching and dominating and achieving for living alongside and paying attention and reflecting? What if we understood the enormous power of nature to be something we might respect? What if we realized that grandiose ambitions are precisely what keeps us away from doing the real work of being alive? And where we are right now, at this point in history, isn’t this meaningful humility something we can’t afford NOT to try?

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

Any anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world
can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.

 

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Book recommendations, please!

I’m doing a spot of research into the period 1936-1960 in UK history and looking for things to read that will give me a real flavour of how people lived during this time. There’s SO much information about World War 2 I’m not so fussed about reading war stories, but am more interested in normal social life just before the war and for the fifteen years that followed it. I’m especially interested in literary life at this time – anything about writers or publishing would be excellent.

I’d rather read novels written and published during this time period than contemporary historical fiction, but really good examples of the latter are still welcome.

Memoirs and non-fiction that deals with this period are very welcome.

Penguin editors in 1950

Writers I’ve thought of already are: John Wyndham, Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth Taylor, Graham Greene, early Barbara Pym, later Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Non-fiction I already own: The Life and Times of Allen Lane by Jeremy Lewis, Family Britain 1951-57 by David Kynaston, Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson.

Any suggestions gratefully received!

 

The Year in Books So Far

It’s been a funny old year, reading-wise. I was pondering why this might be so when it suddenly occurred to me that my algorithm for purchasing books has changed. As audio books are pretty much all I use these days, I’m mostly on the lookout for cheap kindle books with cheap whisper-sync options. I used to  have the monthly audible credit and audible’s regular sales to add into the mix, but my library of unread books reached a figure Mr Litlove must never know about, and so I’ve cancelled my membership until the TBR pile is tamed.  But still I find myself searching the amazon deals, an occupation which has taken me into a demi-monde of publishing that I never knew about before. Basically I had no idea so much crap was published. In all fairness there are probably some great books out there, but the amount of nonsense you have to wade through to find them is a little overwhelming.

So I think this explains why I’ve read so few good new releases this year. Two exceptions, however, go straight into the top ten. Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Jessie Greengrass’s Sight. I haven’t got much to say about them except that they were absolutely brilliant and made me excited about what the novel can do. They were both so astutely observed and chose intelligence over sensation.

In the big book category, however, I had two notable disappointments. The first was Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Last summer I listened to Swallows and Amazons and loved it, so this year I decided I’d try another children’s classic that I never got around to with my son. I should point out that I generally don’t choose YA or children’s books. But I’d loved Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke and enjoyed The Shadow in the North (though I never approve of killing off main characters – I blame J K Rowling for this trend which to my mind breaks a sacred trust with the reader, but that’s just my feeling). Northern Lights is objectively a terrific book. The plot never slackens and not a sentence is out of place. But… I found myself listening to get it finished, not because it had truly engaged me. I’m tempted to say it lacks psychological depth, but honestly, Swallows and Amazons hardly owes a debt to Freud. I don’t know what the matter was. The other big disappointment was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. On paper this sounded perfect – bookshops and mysterious authors with hidden pasts. In reality I lost the will to live less than a quarter of the way through. I don’t think the audio version did it any favours. Setterfield has the kind of style that I might classify as Goes On A Bit, and whilst some parts were beautifully written, others verged on the cringeworthy. Also, most characters had a tendency to be one-dimensionally mad, which I found tedious, and the gothic parts were just implausible. I expect lots of people loved this story: sorry.

On a cheerier note, I’ve done very well with memoirs, listening to three really good ones: Tara Westover’s Educated, Rebecca Stott’s In The Days of Rain and Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own. Westover pips Stott by a feather, but both were mesmerising. Religious fundamentalists make for wonderful batty parent stories, though I spent a great deal of time feeling furious on behalf of their children. It seemed to me that their behaviour had nothing really to do with religion; instead, what these books show is how dangerous people become when they decide they are unequivocally right and that all their conduct is uniquely blessed and sanctioned. The Claire Tomalin was a very different kettle of non-biblical fish. Tomalin’s life as an editor and biographer was a resounding success, but her private life was full of tragedy. Her journalist husband was killed in the Middle East crossfire, and of her four children, one died shortly after birth, another is severely disabled and one committed suicide at Oxford. Yet Tomalin’s account is remarkably low-key, sometimes to the point of sterility. I scoured the reviews afterwards, wondering what others made of this and the response in the mainstream papers was very positive. Other journalists applauded her absence of emotion. I didn’t need sob stories but for me one significant dimension of a memoir is an account of what life has taught its author about herself. Educated is fantastic in this regard. Maybe Tomalin couldn’t leave the biographer’s attitude behind, refusing to draw conclusions? Well, it was a fascinating book, if odd, and sometimes fascinating because of its oddness.

If there’s one category, though, that I’m doomed never to find a decent book in, it’s contemporary mass market. The curse of the sympathetic character has ruined most of them, and a strange contagious plot disease has weakened the rest. I was going to name and shame but I can’t be bothered. They’re not worth it and I should never have gone there. But what has really worked for me, and been perhaps the most bizarrely successful part of a generally bizarre year, has been a sentimental return to books I read and loved as a teenager. This all began right back at the start of the year when I noticed that Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels were going to be issued in audio book format. It’s tragic, I know, but this was my most anticipated event of the year. The Merlin novels always struck me in retrospect as a mirage. Mary Stewart’s other novels are okay, not great, and I wondered whether youth and enthusiasm had skewed my perspective. Not a bit of it. They are still outstanding – clever, powerful, vivid, stirring. I’m not sure how they would go down with younger readers these days, as there’s much more description and plot moves more slowly. But I appreciated the space this gave to the story to live and breathe in my imagination. They are not fantasy novels, though. They are much more about political power, and as such seemed to resonate for me with our 21st century plight in which power is used against the gullible and disadvantaged to get what the powerful want.

Thus encouraged I started poking about amazon’s bargain bins with my teenage years in mind. And I ended up listening to a lot of Joanna Trollope and Georgette Heyer. And they were fab! Really nice sentences, great plotting skills, credible characters. There were things going on at all points in the book which made me curious to see how the characters would react. No great middle-section wastelands where we must all tread water in anticipation of a twist. Honestly, when I was looking for an agent a couple of years ago – and a most depressing business it was – the vast majority were most keen to find a chilling psychological thriller with a truly original twist! I have read such books from the supermarket and they are laughably implausible. Why has this become the Ur-book of the new millennium? What does this say about our culture? Or, in all fairness the alternative must be considered, is this just what getting old looks like?

So currently, I am listening to Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds and Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones, both of which I am enjoying. And I’m theoretically listening to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, when I feel strong enough. It fooled me by having an opening page of terrific humour, but by the end of the second chapter there had been three tragic, tear-jerking deaths. I’m about five chapters in now and have lost track of the body count, and am afraid we might run out of characters. Be warned, Cranford is obviously the former name of Midsomer but without the jolliness.

Litlove and the UFO

A couple of domestic incidents in fact, as quirk and whimsy seem essential qualities to balance out what’s going on in the world right now. You may remember a while back I wrote about my cats using next door’s delightful garden as the litter tray from Harrods? Well the campaign of intimidation continues. When the cats come sauntering into the kitchen with a particular look in their eyes we ask them where they’ve been, and they reply, ‘Oh just next door to do a poo,’ and wink at each other. Knowing full well that they annoy our elderly neighbours, they are doing what cats do and upping the ante.

About a week ago, Mr Litlove was just closing up the house for the night when he received an emergency text from our neighbour. Could he go round because Deedee was somewhere in their house and they couldn’t find her? Mr Litlove put his shoes back on and went round. Deedee had made the first stupid move by deciding to explore next door’s kitchen uninvited, and then our neighbour had compounded the stupidity by trying to chase her out. The result was a small black cat in a big dark house, coordinates uncertain. Mr Litlove hunted about to no avail, with our neighbour expressing disappointment that Deedee didn’t come when he called (as if!). And eventually they gave it up for the night, hoping she had left the building while they looked.

But by breakfast the next morning, Deedee had not returned home so Mr Litlove waited for the inevitable call about our miscreant child, which came about 9.30. Deedee had been found preening herself behind the dining room curtains and was now in the kitchen, and they couldn’t get her our. Mr Litlove went round again and was successful, for Deedee came rushing breathlessly into the kitchen, telling us excitedly that she had had a big adventure and been very, very brave, and maybe just a little bit stoopid. Then she wolfed a huge breakfast and rolled around in her favourite places until she calmed down. Mr Litlove returned having had to do a lot of apologising. and in need ot pretty much the same kind of therapy. ‘She kept making such strange noises,’ our neighbours had complained. Well, Deedee IS quite a chatty cat but she’s only really mastered the imperative (‘Stroke me!’ ‘Feed me!’ ‘Clear my path to the cat flap!’) so I suppose she probably was hard to understand. Mr Litlove looked grimly at Dexter and said that Deedee had gone one better than him, and what was he going to do about that? Dexter didn’t reply but in his eyes there was a faraway look. We live in mild dread.

As it turns out (and this will probably surprise no one) I live in a permanent state of mild-to-medium dread. Fed up with the perfect storm caused by perimenopause and CFS, I started working with the OHC, a clinic in London that specialises in ME/CFS, and I have finally had some tests. My big anomaly lies with my cortisol level, which is off the charts in places. What was really annoying was that I felt quite good on the day I did the tests and was of the opinion that they would come back fine. But high cortisol over a long stretch of time accounts for most of my symptoms. How to solve this problem? Well, that’s the million dollar question: it’s not easy. Diet, meditation, maximum rest and peace and quiet that sort of thing. I need to gain the sort of serenity I’ve never really possessed. Suggestions on postcards, please.

I’m working with a nutritionist who is okay but a bit scatty. Before our first interview I filled in a 16-page questionnaire and wrote a medical and personal history worthy of a Pulitzer. In our first skype call it was clear she had read neither. When I told Mr Litlove he said, ‘You should have asked her if she’d like to take a moment to read through the papers.’ I stared at him and told him that was brilliant and it had never occurred to me. He said modestly that he had learned one or two little things in his 25 years of conducting meetings. The nutritionist and I are at a bit of an impasse as we must move to the next level of tests but are undecided as to what they should be. I think my hormones are all to blame and want to have my estrogen metabolism checked; the nutritionist is longing for me to have parasites (I so do not). I am supposed to get arbitration from my GP who, as a matter of professional dignity, will undoubtedly disagree with both of us. It’s too hot for any of it.

But like the good girl I am, I go to bed nice and early and lie there listening to audio books, summoning inner calm. A couple of nights ago, as I was doing just this, the most extraordinary noise suddenly erupted directly above my head. It sounded like the extractor fan had gone berserk, or an old strimmer in the loft had leapt to ghostly new life. It was the kind of noise that propelled me off the bed, exclaiming, what the hell is that? I called for Mr Litlove who normally has short shrift for the strange noises I hear, but even he found this one disturbing. He went up in the loft, where all was quiet, and then moved towards the back of the house, feeling the ceilings as the noise carried on in staccato bursts. I had just asked him if he thought it came from outside, and he had said no, when there was a knock on the door.

Mr Litlove went down and opened it and all I could hear was some guy saying he was so very, very sorry. And then Mr Litlove went for his shoes again. He called up to me as he went past – there was a father and son on our doorstep apologising because their drone had got stuck on our roof. Who could have guessed that? Apparently they’d been fitting it with new batteries when it had come to life, completely out of control, and flown madly away down the street. It was lodged on our roof and Mr Litlove offered our stepladder. He said the first time was amusing, the second time he would be shorter with them and if there was a third time, it was staying there. The father hastily promised we would never see it again. The next morning, they came back with a bottle of wine as an apology, which was very sweet and as I said, entirely unnecessary. I told them I fully intended to dine out on the story for weeks to come. It’s so 21st century to have someone at your door saying, please may we have our drone back.

Yesterday we were in the garden, trying to brush Deedee (don’t ask) when we heard the strange noise again. I looked up and high in the sky above us, twinkling in the brilliance of the sunlight, was the oddest contraption I’d ever seen, a fine metal cat’s cradle flitting about. We stood up and waved at it while it hovered uncertainly over our garden. And then it flew away.