Featured Poet at Artists’ Union Gallery, Ventura

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I read a range of poems, many new pieces fueled by the MFA — and even some poems about the passing of our son. It was the first time reading them in public, save for a few I read in workshop at the last residency. It felt necessary — like it was time; another stage of honoring and letting go. I also dedicated the first part of the reading to the memory of Sandford Lyne, opening with one of his poems, reading a couple new translations I had done of Machado and Neruda (two of his favorites) and ending the first section with a eulogy in honor of his great spirit.

The place was packed. Roe, our indefatigable host, joked that the event was a sell-out just like Mary Oliver’s reading last week (though Cambell Hall admittedly does hold one or two more people than the Gallery). Still, it was nice to see standing room only. More high praise and fond support: Doris brought her cookies and of course left with an empty bowl. I could not have had a more supportive group in which to read such intimate and personal poems.

Seeing Li-Young Lee read from his own deeply sorrowful, grief-stricken poems last week gave me a model for what it means to honor the experience and honor the art even though it is deeply personal. I felt in some way that seeing him read gave me the strength to do what I had to do tonight.

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Mary Oliver’s Loaves and Fishes

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“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision — a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.”

-Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook

What struck me most about seeing Mary Oliver live for the first time tonight was not the small, sparky woman in a wooly cap reading some of the best mystical and nature poems of our time — but her audience. Surprisingly devoid of students, despite offering USCB students half off a bargain price, the thoughtful eccentrics in rows ahead of me — most gone salt-and-pepper grey — received Oliver like a saint. I kept thinking if America really knew Whitman, they might have welcomed him in his own time as Campbell Hall welcomed Mary tonight.

But America was proud then, though Whitman’s booming, muscular verse resounds beyond his age — an age of manifest destiny and industrial revolution. Now, conquest and materialism have rendered us more spiritually poor than ever, and we are even outsourcing our hollow promises to countries like India, along with torrents of email and our always-on tele-culture. That is why, I think, the audience cheered for her when Oliver mentioned, in passing, that she doesn’t own a computer. The signs leading up to the event proclaimed, “Mary Oliver / SOLD OUT.” Not true.

The world is still too much with us. That is why we are hungrier than ever for the lyric of patient attention, quiet revelation. Her poems seem democratic — as though anyone who thought deeply and lovingly about life could write them, and all of us have such moments. Yet hers is a deceptive elegance borne out of careful work. By such tender care a poem, like a living creature, can be nourished, as can a book, as can a life in poetry. In respect not only to the poems but to that life in poetry, the audience was all too eager to be entertained and moved — laughing at the cleverness, sighing at the tenderness, lapping up each chosen word, and hungering for more.

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Mary Oliver: “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field”

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Read The Poem

What is so great about this poem is the beautiful thought rendered through indelible imagery. The owl descends, “like an angel, or a Buddha with wings” then alights “like a little lighthouse.” But it is this thought of light, consuming light — “scalding, aortal light” — that, paired with the fierceness of the predator, the white-on-white landscape she has painted, haunts us with the notion that in it we are “washed and washed / out of our bones.” The visceral fierceness of the language, and the pairing of the impartial act of predator to the impartial act of death, rendered through such strong — and such cohesive! — imagery leaves a lasting impression in our minds.

What is so great about this poet is how her keen observation of nature leads to transcendence. Here, and in so many poems, she seems to get inside the natural act through her deep meditation upon the subject, and from here she is often led to a kind of universal truth. Because it is borne out of such artistic integrity, this is not prosaic, sing-song truth to be printed on a greeting card. It is the visceral, stark, abundant or spare truth of the real natural world which she replants us firmly and gratefully within.

N.B.: I am ending the MondayPoem series for now. My first intention with this series was to bring poetry to people who do not otherwise feel they “get it.” On that point of the experiment I have had few comments to encourage this pursuit. Also, I wanted to use this as a means to engage with and explore my favorite poems. But I am doing this already, without an enforced frequency (i.e. weekly), and enjoying writing about new discoveries most. Finally, perhaps most importantly, I feel that to give proper critical treatment to these works I love would require much more space and a more formal tone than I want to take on this blog. Yet skimming the surface, I find myself starting to repeat myself about certain concepts and themes. So, it was an interesting experiment, and one I enjoyed — but for now I am putting it to rest

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The New Sincerity Movement in Poetry

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The very existence of a new sincerity movement has sparked some interesting reflection in my mind. First, I think of poets whose sincerity and focus on beauty predate this moniker: Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov, B.H. Fairchild. Clearly, there has been no lack of sincerity in poetry even during the darkest hours of the postmodern period. Yet the idea of a movement, a rallying point for change, is perhaps the most “new” component of this approach.
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