Saturday, January 19, 2019

Prompt #331 – In Memory of Mary Oliver


 
On January 17, 2019, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Mary Oliver passed away. She was my favorite poet, one whose poems I return to again and again. My cousin Sandy Hulme gave me a copy of Mary Oliver's book Devotions for my birthday last November, and it sits with pride of place on my desk next to me as I write this. 

Although critics have been divided about her work, she has awed scores of readers with her linguistic precision and understated depth. The NY Times said that Ms. Oliver's work has an almost “homiletic quality.” I've often felt that as I read her poems, each of which is a kind of "teaching." Importantly, her poems are characterized by the simple perfection of “unadorned language” and uncompromised accessibility. Always profoundly human, she wrote with a deep sense of living in kinship with the natural world and its creatures. Ms. Oliver once described herself as “the kind of old-fashioned poet who walks the woods most days, accompanied by dog and notepad.”

The poem below is one of Ms. Oliver’s most well-known. I’d like you to read it and then to reflect on it’s meanings. Do you find anything in the poem that speaks to you personally?


Wild Geese
  By Mary Oliver

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.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
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.


In literature, wild geese have symbolized compassion, community, bravery, communication, determination, and caring, as well as an individual path in life. In her poem, “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver tells us that one doesn’t have to worry about being good or repentant but, rather, to truly love the life you’ve been given. She recognizes that everyone will encounter difficulties in life and that sharing those hardships with others is important. 

This poem reminds us that life goes on despite our human frailties and weaknesses; wild geese continue to follow their paths; and each of us keeps our position in the world. Like wild geese, our place in the natural world offers itself to us.

In addition to situating and illuminating what it means to be human, Ms. Oliver reminds us to keep going on despite life’s challenges, to look within ourselves, and to seek the beauty and peace of the natural world.

Ms. Oliver draws us into the divinity of the natural world. She also invites us to consider what makes a “good life.” She offers her readers a sense that the world is “…announcing your place in the family of things,” that all is as it should be. There is order in the natural world and in human experience, no matter how lonely human experience may be at times.  Whenever I read a Mary Oliver poem, I’m reminded of Julian of Norwich who wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”


Suggestions:

1. Does anything in “Wild Geese” speak to you personally? If so, write down what and how.

2.  Think about your personal world and the natural world. Do they share anything in common? Do you ever turn to nature for comfort and peace?

3. Choose something in nature that you love, and think about why you love it (spring rain, the hush of snow falling, sparrows or cardinals, lilacs, a river, mountains, etc.).  Alternatively, you might consider a beloved pet or a favorite wild animal.

4. Free write for a while about that natural “something.”
 
5. In her poem “Spring,” Ms. Oliver wrote,“There is only one question; / how to love this world.” How do you love this world?

6. Now, begin a poem that matches or comes close to Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” in form:

one stanza (stichic form)
18 lines
free verse
no internal or external rhyme
7. Let your poem develop as you write it, give it its “head” and let it take you where it wants to go.

Tips:

1. When you begin writing, don’t worry about technique, spelling, punctuation, or form. Just write. There’s always time for revision and refining after you’ve written your drafts. Most importantly, get your thoughts and feelings onto the paper first.

2. If you’d prefer to read and not write, a list of Mary Oliver poems follows. Enjoy!


1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/images/_ln.gif


In her poem “When Death Comes” Ms. Oliver wrote,

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.



RIP, dear Mary Oliver! You were always more than a visitor, and I'm grateful.




Saturday, January 5, 2019

Prompt #330 – Holding On/Letting Go



Happy New Year, dear blog readers!

The poet Rumi wrote that life is a balance of holding on and letting go. We all have a tendency to hold onto things from the past (especially things that have hurt us). Even though holding on doesn’t necessarily help us, it’s a natural impulse to let things continue. The fact is, though, that it’s impossible to write a new chapter when we keep re-reading an old one.

With a new year beginning, this may be a good time to think about things we haven't been able to let go and to consider how we might jettison feelings and relationships that don't bring us peace.

Sooner or later, most of us experience broken relationships: a romantic break-up, a divorce, a lost love, rifts among family members, friendships that fail. In some cases, these have been painful experiences (some with negative outcomes); in others, the results were more positive. This week, let’s write about “breaking up” with someone, someone you can’t seem to “forgive and forget.” Please note that this won’t be about a loss through death; rather, your poem’s subject matter will be a deliberate break-up (either by your choice or someone else’s). Let your poem tell the story and then think about how translating feelings into written language can be healing.

Guidelines:

1. Think about the following:

      What’s the “exit” you’ll never forget?

      What’s the “exit” you’ll never regret?

      What breakup was a good thing for you?

      A teenage breakup, an adult breakup?
 
      The breakup of a friendship, not a romance?

      A breakup with family members?

You might want to jot down some ideas and then begin a free write based on one of them.

2. When you get some ideas organized, go from your free write to a poem.

3. What coping strategies worked for you at the time of the “breakup?” What was "letting go" like for you? Did you really let go? Have you been holding on?

4. How do you feel about the situation now?

5. Explore the positives as well as the negatives. If you let go, are you better in any way because you did?

Tips:

1. There should be a sense of intimacy in the poem as you “tell the story” of a break-up (as you reveal something personal). However, be careful not to “overtell,” and avoid writing a confessional poem.
2. You should always leave room for the reader to enter and experience the poem from his or her unique perspective.

3. Be careful not to sentimentalize, become maudlin, or overly-emotional.

Examples:

“When We Two Parted” by Lord Byron

“Falling and Flying” by Jack Gilbert

“The Break Away” by Anne Sexton

“The Nails” by W. S Merwin


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Prompt #329 – The Festive Season



This time of year is always special whether it’s about a specific holiday or just the “feeling” of the season. Here in the northern hemisphere, winter begins in December, but in other parts of the world, it’s summer. Whatever the weather, this is a festive season—a time of good cheer and light, of music and old movies, of giving and receiving.

Did you know that Nobel Laureate, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was so taken with Christmas that he wrote a Christmas poem every year (now collected in his book Nativity Poems)? Holiday poems and stories have an enduring appeal, and most of you are familiar with Charles Dickens’s story about Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. For this prompt, we’re going to do some variations on the past, present, and future theme, and you’ll need to think about your past, present, and future Christmases, Chanukahs, Kwanzas, Yules, or other annual winter-season celebrations. 

Guidelines: 

1. Write about a holiday from your past (dig deeply into family memories).

2. Write a poem in which you compare winter holidays of the past, present, and/or future.

3. Write about metaphorical seasonal ghosts that haunt you.

4. Write about people from your past who are no longer with you and how that impacts your present holiday season; or, write about one special person with whom you always associate the winter holidays.

5. Write about aspects of winter holiday traditions that remain part of your annual celebrations.

6. Write about the faith and/or cultural aspects of your winter holidays.

7. Write about one unforgettable winter holiday.

8. Write about holiday food treats and how they sweeten your memories.

9. Write about a holiday song that replays in your mind because of its associations (or, write your own words to a Christmas carol or other winter holiday song).

10. Write a poem based on an old Christmas, Chanukah, or other winter holiday photograph.

11. Write about a historical holiday-time event.

12. Write about a winter holiday yet to come. You might consider a fantasy poem with a futuristic sensibility. 

Tips: 

1. Keep in mind that holiday literature can be tricky—be sure to sidestep the pitfalls of sentimentality, schmaltziness, nostalgia, and clichés.

2. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

3. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

4. Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.

6. Challenge the ordinary, connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.

7. Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”

8. Understand that overstatement and the obvious are deadly when it comes to writing poetry. Don’t ramble on, and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long. 

Examples: 

“Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays” by Charles Reznikoff 
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16820 

“Christmas Trees” by Robert Frost  
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19307 

“Noël: Christmas Eve 1913” by Robert Bridges  
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/22721 

“The Czar's Last Christmas Letter: A Barn in the Urals” by Norman Dubie  
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15678 

“The Feast of Lights” by Emma Lazarus 
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16818 

“Are We Done Yet” by Gail Fishman Gerwin 
http://www.yourdailypoem.com/listpoem.jsp?poem_id=952




As in the past, I’m going to take a brief December hiatus

and will begin posting again in January.



I send my sincerest thanks 

to all of you who have visited this blog over the past year
to those of you who were new to "The Music In It" 
and to loyal readers who visit regularly.
Poetry is about sharing, and I'm grateful for the sharing that happens here!


I send all of you my best holiday wishes for good health, happiness, and peace,
and for a New Year filled with all the things that bring you joy.



Regular posts will resume on Saturday, January 5, 2019, so please stay tuned until then.
I have some wonderful prompts and guest blogger articles lined up for you.



Happy holidays to all!

In poetry and blogging,
Adele
 







Saturday, November 24, 2018

Prompt #328 – Your Wild and Precious Life

(Photo Courtesy of Bob Fiorellino)

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
 with your one wild and precious life?

— Mary Oliver (“The Summer Day,” House of Light, 1990)

I love the above quote from Mary Oliver, and it was the inspiration for this prompt. For me, it calls to mind all the possibilities for a life well-lived, as well as the power of intention.

Mary Oliver is a master of deceptive simplicity. She’s a poet who flawlessly and seamlessly moves from the immediate world into something much more profound. Read on one level, Oliver’s poems are easily understood, but underneath, between the lines, and inherent in her language choices is an insistent voice, which never fails to remind me that no good poem can be fully comprehended on a first reading—clarity with a hint of being on the edge of understanding always invites contemplation.

For this prompt, think about your life. What does your life mean to you? How is your life “wild and precious?” What do you hope for, dream about, think about, and work toward in your life?

Guidelines:

1. Free write for a while about your life; focus on what you hope your life will be like.

2. Think about the words “wild” and “precious” and think about the ways in which your life has been, or you would like it to be, wild and precious. Look those words up, explore the synonyms for the them. Work with the words “wild” and “precious.”

3. Even if you are of advanced years, what would you like your remaining “wild and precious” life to hold for you? No matter how old you are, your life is always wild and precious. That said, if you’d prefer to write about how you looked at life when you were younger, go for it!

4. Your poem make you see the world in a way in which you have never seen it before. Hopefully, you will gain some insight into your own life.

5. Begin composing your poem. Try to keep it within the 15-25 line range.

6. After you’ve written a draft or two, put the poem away for a couple of days. When you come back to it, look for “leads” into other ideas and ways to expand the levels of meaning in your poem.

7. During drafting and revising, find the “lifeless” parts of your poem and give them some strength through more effective language (and imagery). If that doesn’t work, remember that sometimes it’s necessary to sacrifice a line or phrase that you love to save a poem's life.  One of the best approaches to editing is to remove rather than to add.

Tips:

1. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

3. The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.

6. Challenge the ordinary, connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.

7. Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”

8. If you take a risk, make it a big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge.

9. Understand that overstatement and the obvious are deadly when it comes to writing poetry. Don’t ramble on, and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long.

10. Bring your poem to closure with a dazzling dismount. (Be careful not to undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers gasp.)


Example:

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver