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Posts Tagged ‘  American Essays’

Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets. Everytime I read her poem, ‘The Summer Day‘, I get goosebumps. But I haven’t read any of her prose or essay collections. I thought I will start with this one. (Isn’t the book cover breathtakingly beautiful?)

Upstream‘ is a collection of essays, mostly selected from Mary Oliver’s other collections and assembled together here. The book is divided into five sections. In the first section, Mary Oliver writes about how she fell in love with nature and with reading and with poetry. She also writes about her favourite poet Walt Whitman. She also shares her thoughts on writing as an art – it is one of the most beautiful and inspiring essays I have read. The second section is about nature. The third section is about Oliver’s favourite writers. Here in four essays, she shares her thoughts on Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Wordsworth. The fourth section is also about nature. The final section has one essay called ‘Provincetown‘ which talks about the town in which Oliver lived with her partner for nearly five decades. It is a beautiful essay about how this beautiful coastal town changed from a sleepy town where everyone was happy to the tourist spot that it is today.

I mentioned earlier that the second and the fourth sections were about nature. Is there any difference between them? Which section did I like more? The second section mostly had essays which looked at nature from a slightly larger perspective. For example, there is an essay about ponds and another about fishing and different kinds of fishes. The fourth section takes a more closer look. Here, there is an essay on a spider which is building her web and trying to have babies. There is another essay about an injured seagull which Oliver saves from the beach and what happens to him. We almost feel that the spider and the seagull are human. I liked both these nature sections, but I loved the fourth section more. It was hard not to think of Charlotte while reading the essay on the spider.

My favourite essays in the book were ‘Upstream‘, which is a meditative essay about trees, the woods, the forest – it felt almost like reading a Mary Oliver poem here, ‘My Friend Walt Whitman‘, which is a beautiful ode to this great poet, ‘Staying Alive‘, which describes how Mary Oliver fell in love with books and nature, ‘Of Power and Time‘, which is a beautiful, inspiring essay about the life of an artist, ‘Swoon‘, which is about the spider mom, ‘Bird‘, which is about the injured seagull, ‘Building the House‘, in which Oliver describes how she tried building a house once, and ‘Provincetown‘, which is a beautiful nostalgic piece. I liked the rest of the essays too, but these were my absolute favourites.

I loved ‘Upstream‘. Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets. Now after reading this book, I realize that she will give my favourite essayist Anne Fadiman a run for her money. A collection of Mary Oliver poems or essays, a collection of Anne Fadiman essays, a quiet time in the garden with the birds chirping, and the butterflies dazzling, the sun warm but not hot, the sky beautifully blue with fluffy white clouds, a cup of delicious, hot, spicy tea with some chocolate cake, and a beautiful time spent savouring poems and essays and nature – this is the ideal day, isn’t it? What more does one need?

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. (Sorry I went overboard with the quotes).

“Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion.”

On the Black Oak

“It lives in my imagination strongly that the black oak is pleased to be a black oak. I mean all of them, but in particular one tree that leads me into Blackwater, that is as shapely as a flower, that I have often hugged and put my lips to. Maybe it is a hundred years old. And who knows what it dreamed of in the first springs of its life, escaping the cottontail’s teeth and everything dangerous else. Who knows when supreme patience took hold, and the wind’s wandering among its leaves was enough of motion, of travel.”

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

On Walt Whitman

“I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company. It was everything that was needed, when everything was needed. I remember the delicate, rumpled way into the woods, and the weight of the books in my pack. I remember the rambling, and the loafing—the wonderful days when, with Whitman, I tucked my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time.”

On the Beauty of Work

“And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe—that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.”

On Form

“Form is certainty. All nature knows this, and we have no greater adviser. Clouds have forms, porous and shape-shifting, bumptious, fleecy. They are what clouds need to be, to be clouds. See a flock of them come, on the sled of the wind, all kneeling above the blue sea. And in the blue water, see the dolphin built to leap, the sea mouse skittering; see the ropy kelp with its air-filled bladders tugging it upward; see the albatross floating day after day on its three-jointed wings. Each form sets a tone, enables a destiny, strikes a note in the universe unlike any other. How can we ever stop looking? How can we ever turn away?”

On Life

“And now my old dog is dead, and another I had after him, and my parents are dead, and that first world, that old house, is sold and lost, and the books I gathered there lost, or sold—but more books bought, and in another place, board by board and stone by stone, like a house, a true life built, and all because I was steadfast about one or two things: loving foxes, and poems, the blank piece of paper, and my own energy—and mostly the shimmering shoulders of the world that shrug carelessly over the fate of any individual that they may, the better, keep the Niles and the Amazons flowing.
And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want to with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.”

On Creative Work and the Creative Life

“In creative work—creative work of all kinds—those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook—a different set of priorities. Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”

“Of this there can be no question—creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this—who does not swallow this—is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.”

“It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

On Emerson

“The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. Answers are no part of it; rather, it is the opinions, the rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self-quarrels, his own predicament. This is the crux of Emerson, who does not advance straight ahead but wanders to all sides of an issue; who delivers suggestions with a kindly gesture—who opens doors and tells us to look at things for ourselves. The one thing he is adamant about is that we should look—we must look—for that is the liquor of life, that brooding upon issues, that attention to thought even as we weed the garden or milk the cow.”

The Two Gifts

“In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us.”

The Love of Trees

“Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I felt more at home here than anywhere else, including our own house. Stepping out into the world, into the grass, onto the path, was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was returning to the arena of delight. I was stepping across some border. I don’t mean just that the world changed on the other side of the border, but that I did too. Eventually I began to appreciate—I don’t say this lightly—that the great black oaks knew me. I don’t mean they knew me as myself and not another—that kind of individualism was not in the air—but that they recognized and responded to my presence, and to my mood. They began to offer, or I began to feel them offer, their serene greeting. It was like a quick change of temperature, a warm and comfortable flush, faint yet palpable, as I walked toward them and beneath their outflowing branches.”

The Young Carpenter Poet

“I know a young man who can build almost anything—a boat, a fence, kitchen cabinets, a table, a barn, a house. And so serenely, and in so assured and right a manner, that it is joy to watch him. All the same, what he seems to care for best—what he seems positively to desire—is the hour of interruption, of hammerless quiet, in which he will sit and write down poems or stories that have come into his mind with clambering and colorful force. Truly he is not very good at the puzzle of words—not nearly as good as he is with the mallet and the measuring tape—but this in no way lessens his pleasure. Moreover, he is in no hurry. Everything he learned, he learned at a careful pace—will not the use of words come easier at last, though he begin at the slowest trot? Also, in these intervals, he is happy. In building things, he is his familiar self, which he does not overvalue. But in the act of writing he is a grander man, a surprise to us, and even more to himself. He is beyond what he believed himself to be.”

Have you read ‘Upstream‘ by Mary Oliver? What do you think about it?

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