Getting Beyond the Green Wall: Mary Oliver, Kay Ryan and William Blake

May 4, 2015

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"A Woody Landscape" by William Blake

How poems are like landscapes

So much of what we call reading is actually scanning for the gist, especially online. We do this all day long with email and the internet—it’s a way of managing waves of relentless information. Reading is something else entirely. One can read a landscape, a garden, a tree, a bird, or a poem. This kind of reading involves engagement, contemplation, and associative as well as analytical thinking. It requires time, repetition and memory.

If you scan a poem, you’ll miss it, just as scanning doesn’t work for penetrating the “green wall” and truly observing plants or animals. A bur oak’s genetic makeup can be analyzed in the lab; only prolonged observation out of doors on many occasions in different seasons will enable one to know the species or a particular tree. Aldo Leopold used to test students by taking them to a place in a landscape and then having them read it in detail in order to glean understanding about the inhabitants, human and otherwise, the state of the soil, state of overall ecosystem health and so on.

A poem is obviously not like a tree, garden or landscape. Yet a good one will reward the same kind of alert, repetitive attention that puts us more deeply in relationship with ourselves, with other people, and with the world at large. A good poem pulls the reader away from abstraction and into experience.

Three poems

Very familiar is the Mary Oliver quote that asks, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It is from “The Summer Day,” which gets quoted by newspaper columnists and bloggers as a way to remind themselves and readers of their connection to nature.  Once I saw Oliver read, a smallish woman dressed in black with a calm voice and quiet demeanor. I don’t remember if she read that poem, but like to imagine she did. She must have done, it is so popular. Her poems are touchstones for many nature lovers. Clear, accessible, they articulate for readers the feelings one might have when encountering other species and natural processes. “The Kingfisher” exemplifies her lyric Romanticism.

The Kingfisher

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak 
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is 
the prettiest world–so long as you don’t mind 
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn’t born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water–hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don’t say he’s right. Neither
do I say he’s wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.

Kay Ryan is another species entirely, someone I think of as the anti-lyric lyricist. Oh, she writes short poems full of rhyme and a kind of internal rhyme she calls “recombinant rhyme,” often on natural subjects such as animals, but there’s not much sweetness there, and no fallacy, pathetic or otherwise. She was Poet Laureate of the US in from 2008-2010. When contemplating whether or not to devote her life to writing poetry, she rode her bicycle on a 4,000 mile trip in order to think things over. Her poems sometimes go off like little bombs when you least expect it, and her humor is often of a wry, dry kind. Somehow I associate her work with the ironic science cartoons found at the blog xkcd, though the subject matter is vastly different.


Felix Crow

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.

I was going to add a piece by Jorie Graham, a poet of significant accomplishment who has just published a book of selected poems. Her work is interesting and can be difficult: full of large ideas, elliptic lines and deliberate gaps. But then at a concert I heard Martha Redbone sing William Blake poems for which she and her husband had written gospel/bluegrass/roots settings. Appalachian music keeps traditions alive and Blake’s poems might seem as simple in rhythm and language as old ballads—but that apparent simplicity carries complexities dark and light. Blake is not a safe read, as nature is not safe.


Hear the Voice of the Bard

Hear the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees;

Calling the lapsèd soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

‘O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass!
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumbrous mass.

‘Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day.’

Mary Oliver  / Kay Ryan  / Jorie Graham / William Blake 
Martha Redbone Roots Project / xkcd

Adiran Ayres Fisher

Adrian Ayres Fisher

Adrian Ayres Fisher serves as a volunteer steward of a small forest preserve on the banks of the Des Plaines River in Illinois. As programs co-chair of West Cook Wild Ones, she educates about and promotes native-plant gardening and biodiversity. She writes and speaks on a range of nature-related topics from a Midwestern point of view. Her home is in an inner-ring suburb of Chicago and she blogs at Ecological Gardening.

Tags: art as social change, the natural world