Tough Love from an Old Poet

My friend Andrea Nachtigall recently took me to see Mary Oliver at City Arts and Lectures in SF. There was a wonderful anticipatory hush before the poet came on stage, as if we were going to hear a really wonderful orchestra. Magic was hanging in the air, just waiting to be evoked. Mary Oliver read her poems, interspersed with talking to us about writing. Some of it was her way of writing, some of it was advice, some admonition. She had the whole auditorium completely mesmerized. I thought I’d share a few of her words of wisdom. Here are a few quotes and paraphrases:

·     *   I am very disciplined about working. You don’t accomplish anything without discipline. I write every day. It is an invitational.

 T    * The creative part of your mind is always there. You’ve got to keep a schedule. If you say to it “let’s meet at seven a.m.,” it will be there. You will struggle less.

·       * I go to the woods. They are my primary sources.

·      * I always carry a notebook. One needs to capture an idea as soon as it occurs.

·       * Silence is the door into the temple. If you ever go into the woods with me, I must love you very much.  (Adored this one. I only go into the woods with people I dearly love as well.)

And here, a poem by Mary Oliver.

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me,

she took me back so tenderly,

arranging her dark skirts, her pockets

full of lichens and seeds.

I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,

nothing between me and the white fire of the stars

but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths

among the branches of the perfect trees.

All night I heard the small kingdoms

breathing around me, the insects,

and the birds who do their work in the darkness.

All night I rose and fell, as if in water,

grappling with a luminous doom. By morning

I had vanished at least a dozen times

into something better.

 © Mary Oliver


May your pockets always be full of lichens and seeds and, of course, a notebook.



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8 responses to “Tough Love from an Old Poet

  1. sharonvanzandt

    Oh, the woods, the perfect trees and small kingdoms. I love this, Betsy. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Tom Birdseye

    Mary Oliver is one of my favorites. Her poem “The Summer Day ” is up on our fridge. Also Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things.” Walks in the woods should be a part of the daily practice of living. Thanks for the reminder, Betsy.

  3. ereagan

    I’ll be headed toward the woods this weekend, Betsy. Thanks for this beautiful post. It brought tears to my eyes. And urged me to keep my appointments with the creative mind.

  4. maryquattlebaum

    Thank you, Besty, for this chance to “visit” Mary Oliver, through you. I loved what she said about daily work being an invitation, the intimate woods, and the self vanishing “at least a dozen times” into something larger (in her poem). Do you have a favorite Oliver poem?

  5. Kathi Appelt

    Betsy, this post is just what I needed to start my writing day. An invitation. I love that. And Tom, I have “The Summer Day” taped to the wall beside my desk. I try to answer the question daily, the one about my “one wild and precious life.”

  6. jeannineatkins

    There’s so much to inspire here by way of a national treasure. Thank you.

  7. laurasalas

    Thanks for sharing this! Love Mary Oliver–lucky you to hear her, and lucky us to get some tidbits:>)

  8. Julie Larios

    Mary Oliver and Billy Collins really are the only two poets in America that booksellers can convince readers to look at – Collins for his humor, and Oliver for her connection with the natural world. No doubt it has to do with how accessible they both make their thoughts to their readers – this isn’t poetry that needs to be puzzled out, it’s as clear as that water running over the “stone in a river bed” that Oliver feels herself to be. Tom, I love Wendell Berry, too – his “Traveling at Home” is the poem I have up on the refrigerator (“To get back before dark / is the art of going.”) Thanks for posting this, Betsy.

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