Poet Mary Oliver: a Solitary Walk
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It was central for me - I don't know if it was essential, really. It's the way I happened to do it. Also, I take walks. Walks work for me. I enter some arena that is neither conscious or unconscious. It's a joke here in town: I take a walk and I'm found standing still somewhere. This is not a walk to arrive; this is a walk that's part of a process. [Poet] Donald Hall takes short naps. Naps work for him, open the door to the "vatic" voice, as he calls it. Something else will work for somebody else, perhap s. It's a matter of trying everything you can try, just to see what will work for you.Skip to next paragraph
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And if we found you, standing transfixed, would that be the beginning of the poem? Would you begin to write right then?
Well, sometimes. I keep a notebook with me all the time - and I scribble.... You begin to get your felt reaction in a phrase, perhaps. But, you know, I've said before that the angel doesn't sit on your shoulder unless the pencil's in your hand. ... And in truth that [is only] given after years of desiring it, being open to it, and walking toward it.
The poet William Stafford describes his morning discipline, sitting at his desk, being prepared to receive whatever his imagination brings. But it seems your focus is on the prolonged work that takes place after that gift is received.
Yes, but I don't see how you can separate the pleasure from the work. There is nothing better than work. Work is also play, children know that. Children play earnestly as if it were work. But people grow up, and they work with a sorrow upon them. It's duty. But I feel writing is work, and I feel it's also play - bound together.
Yet you approach the task with a sense of great responsibility.
Oh, yes. It's my responsibility if I choose to do it, to write as well as I possibly can. I believe art is utterly important. It is one of the things that could save us. We don't have to rely totally on experience if we can do things in our imagination. ... It's the only way in which you can live more lives than your own. You can escape your own time, your own sensibility, your own narrowness of vision.
In most of the poems, there seems to be a natural three-stage process in the experience. The first involves seeing, a careful scrutiny of the subject. But that seeing evolves into a deeper focus, a heightened awareness. Suddenly we become present to the moment. What is that seeing beyond seeing?
It's like an epiphany; I see something and look at it and look at it. I see myself going closer and closer just to see it better, as though to see its meaning out of its physical form. And then, I take something emblematic from it and then it transcends the actual.
Yes, that's just how I thought of the third stage in the process: transcendence. The poem "Gannets" is a good example. You begin with a clear-eyed description of the gannets diving into the water, coming up with the fish in their mouths. But suddenly this life-and-death confrontation is transformed into something else: "...and I say: life is real,/ and pain is real,/ but death is an imposter." The poem concludes in some other realm entirely, declaring that the fish "slide down into a black fire/ for a mo ment,/ then rise from the water inseparable/ from the gannets' wings." What is it like when the work extends beyond mere knowing?
Almost the best I can say is that I know when I have not done it. I know the sag of the unfinished poem. And I know the release of the poem that is finished.
I'd like to ask you about the choices, the large and small sacrifices you've made in order to have this work become a center in your life.
It was not a choice of writing or not writing. It was a choice of loving my life or not loving my life. To keep writing was always a first priority. ... I worked probably 25 years by myself. ... Just writing and working, not trying to publish much. Not giving readings. A longer time than people really are willing to commit before they ... want to go public or be published. Also I was very careful never to take an interesting job. Really? Never?
Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours. ... I usually get up at five. Believe me, if anybody has a job and starts at 9, there's no reason why they can't get up at 4:30 or five and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day - which is what I did. ... I don't know how to measure the life I lived during those years. I was certainly never in want, a nd I was never wealthy. I have a notion that if you are going to be spiritually curious, you better not get cluttered up with too many material things. ... It's a commitment, but it's also an unstoppable urge toward that life of the imagination. I don't think I have been bored one day in my life, you know, or an hour.