from Winter 2005 [Issue No. 5]
Don't Read Self-Help Books ▪► Martha Schulman
There's a book out now called Ten Poems to Set You Free. I know this because Barnes and Noble shelves it in the new books area, not with the books about improving your love life or forgiving yourself or forgiving your mother or finding peace, all of which are things I would like to do, but none of which are books I will ever read. The author and compiler, a man named Roger Housden, goes over his chosen ten at some length, pointing out key bits, explaining how and why they're relevant to you. I will not be reading this book either, at least not more than I read standing there, sweating in my winter coat, killing time before I had to be somewhere, some ordinary task or appointment I had forgotten how (no, I never learned) to imbue with sacredness, because, though I liked some of the poems, I didn't like the stuff between them much. Too sincere. Too literal. Too New Age. Too all the things I don't like about books whose goal is to help me.
But I want, nonetheless, to honor him (as I'm sure he'd put it) anyway, for two things. First, the idea that poetry is life-changing, which I'd known intuitively for a long time, but had never seen stated so clearly, and, second, for a line from Mary Oliver's "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches". This poem is long, really long, and for me at least, a poem that long can change my life, if it can at all, in bits and pieces. I can't remember the rest of it, but here is the line: "Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?"
Now, I'm not going to claim that line changed my life in some concrete way. That kind of change would require my actually doing something, deciding that breathing just a little wasn't enough, that I could raise my hand, ask for help, change jobs ... something. I've done nothing like that, but that line has made a difference. It's given me something I lacked before: description and reassurance, followed by the glimmering idea that change might be possible. That one line describes my case, diagnoses the problem — reassurance enough. But then, because of the thing peculiar to poetry — no, not peculiar to it but prevalent there, double and triple meaning, meaning multiplied and offered back, it does something else, opens things up, magnifies the ways I can think about the condition in which I find myself.
Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life? Well, what does life require, first of all? Breath. So in that bare minimum way, I have a life. But not enough of one, which Oliver reminds me of. Why breathe just a little? Am I breathing intermittently, between bouts of holding my breath, out of fear, perhaps, or the desire to be as quiet as possible (the way children do playing hide and seek, anxious that not even their breath reveal them)? Am I breathing shallowly, afraid to take in all that might be available to me? And here, right away, we see why poetry is better than prose. I almost wrote: "afraid to take in all the possibilities." Now, while this may be true, it is not a sentence I want either to write or to read. A sentence better suited to those books of which I am so suspicious. But alas, and I have learned this the hard way, not wanting to read those kind of books does not, unfortunately, mean one doesn't need them.
Fortunately, there is poetry instead. Mary Oliver doesn't need to explain or underscore; she trusts us to make the connections, breathe in and out again, relieved that someone, finally, has said this thing we have quietly known (which does not mean we have known that we knew, or known how to put it into words) for a long, sad time.
In case you are breathing just a little and calling it, well, you know, a life of some kind, diminished but feasible, boring, bored, on bad days maybe just the tiniest bit hopeless, I offer you another poem. Less prose, more poetry. As it happens, another Mary Oliver, or parts of it, though it isn't so long. Still, best to start small. This poem walks the line between inescapably true and ickily sincere. A necessary balancing act, that-- another thing I've found out the hard way: irony alone does not sustain life. Oliver is comfortable on that line, or, more likely, doesn't think in those terms, doesn't acknowledge that there is such a line. She has bigger fish to fry, lives to save — her own, I imagine, first of all.
"Wild Geese" starts with a bit of good news:
love what it loves.
It then travels with the weather, moving with the sun and the "clear pebbles of the rain" until it gets to the main thing, which, attentive readers will not be surprised to find, are those wild geese. I could say a good bit about just this one stanza, English-teacher it up for you, point out how effectively it uses direct address. I will forebear; it is not especially complicated (not a coincidence; complexity is a fine thing, but if you need a poem viscerally, this minute, because you are in trouble, then struggling to unlock its metaphors and enjambments, to parse the poet's meaning and make it yours, can be too much, the final straw, like the top on those child-proof aspirin bottles); you can make it out for yourself. I will say only this: I have a slight problem with "the soft animal of your body," but then I would, wouldn't I, locked in my head, hoping over and over, despite all evidence, that happiness will come via my brain, in rational measured steps, but this is not enough to ruin the poem. I don't live in the country, and I have the city-dweller's distrust of landscape as some kind of answer, but there it is, and not even I can resist the "clear pebbles of the rain," doing one more thing poetry does, making new things out of old, offering fresh eyes with which to see. And then the pay-off. First "the wild geese, high in the clean blue air," and then, on top of that, more added to more, the world itself.
Note that, sincere as Mary Oliver may be, she doesn't pretty things up. The world is exciting, but also harsh. It makes the offer, but it is left to you to take that offer up, even when, beset with despair, you are least able to do so. The task is hard, but the reward is, potentially, immense. Not just thinner thighs in thirty days or fifty ways to meet a mensch in New York City, but a place, your place, in the family of things. You — a lonely, despairing person, willing, in theory at least (I am very good on theory, not so good on practice; and you?) to do anything, anything at all, to "walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting" — you need only do something simpler and closer to home (not easier, no one said easier). You have only to listen to the harsh and exciting call, heed it, and take up the place that awaits you. If this were an ad, I would start to exhort. I would say: just do it. If it were a self-help book, I would encourage. I would say: I know you can. I know no such thing, not about you, not about me. I am, however, cautiously hopeful. Read the poem, all of it. (Go out and find it. A little project will do you good.) Read it again. Allow it to work on you. See what happens. You wanted something to happen, hoped it would. W.H. Auden said, famously, that poetry makes nothing happen. He meant, I think, nothing grand, no wars, no treaties. In that sense, he may be right. For our purposes, however, he was entirely wrong, which is the good news. See what happens.
"Wild Geese" is taken from Dream Work ©1986 by Mary Oliver. Used by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc. and the author. The quotation from "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches" also appears with the author's permission.
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