Mary Oliver

If you want to see someone’s eyes glaze over, ask them if they’d like to hear some of your poems. It’s an instant excuse generator. Not that I blame anyone for staying away from poetry readings. I usually avoid them myself because no matter how good the poet, I almost always find myself fuzzing out before they get to the last line of whatever poem they happen to be reading. Too many poets, even the accomplished and experienced ones, seem to have this sing song quality to their reading: their voice rises at the end of every line, making every line sound like a cross between a question and a vague observation. This style makes for a bland experience, hence my fuzzing out.

I myself am not immune to this style. When I rehearse my poems before my own readings, I notice that I do the exact same thing, even when I am completely aware of it. Such an odd experience, to find myself doing something I dislike so much and don’t want to be doing.

Now I’m happy to report that I’ve found at least one poet who has managed to overcome this problem. Kim and I went to hear Mary Oliver in Portland last night. Her first two poems had a hint of the sing song in them, but by the time she got to her third poem she hit her stride and I did not fuzz out for the rest of the hour. Instead I was enchanted by her voice and her imagery, which is the whole point of hearing any poet.

Here are the opening lines of her poem “Wild Geese,” (from Dream Work) which received a long and sustained applause at the reading last night:

You do not have to be good.
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.

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