Last Christmas, I watched a movie called I Heard the Bells based on the story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the events that led up to his penning the beloved Christmas poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. Until then, I hadn’t learned much of Longfellow and had read even less. I did know he wrote a lot of long poems, so I didn’t want to invest in a large, expensive volume ’til I knew if I liked his poetry. So I purchased this little paperback from Penguin Classics. Some of the poems included are “Evangeline”, “The Courtship of Miles Standish”, “A Psalm of Life”, and “The Village Blacksmith”.
The introduction is by Lawrence Buell. I’ve only read part of the introduction so far, but I learned so much about Longfellow that I can’t wait to read his poems. Did you know that he was a master of five languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, and German? And he could read in six more. He taught at Harvard until he decided to write poetry as his profession; he was the first American poet to do so. He lost two wives – the first after a miscarriage in Europe, the second in an accident when her dress caught fire. Longfellow knew deep love and deeper sorrow. I am really looking forward to reading these poems. Though, as with all poetry, I will have to read it slowly. Poetry, you see, should be read in small portions, both so you can take the whole meaning of a poem in to ponder and so you don’t get discouraged by misunderstanding.
Have you read any poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? I would love to know which ones you like so I can read them too.
If I walk out into the world in irritation or self-centeredness, the birds scatter. I would like people to remember of me, how inexhaustible was her mindfulness. The hurricane may find us or it will not, that will always be the way. With Shelley, I feel the visceral experience of imagination. Can you imagine anyone having a "casual" faith? "This is what I know from years of being me," said a friend. You will always love me. About God, how could he give up his secrets and still be God? If you think you see a face in the clouds, why not send a greeting? It can't do any harm. ("A Little Ado About This And That", Mary Oliver, printed in Blue Horses, 2014)
I'm living in a warm place now, where you can purchase fresh blueberries all year long. Labor free. From various countries in South America. They're as sweet as any, and compared with the berries I used to pick in the fields outside of Provincetown, they're enormous. But berries are berries. They don't speak any language I can't understand. Neither do I find ticks or small spiders crawling among them. So, generally speaking, I'm very satisfied. There are limits, however. What they don't have is the field. The field they belonged to and through the years I began to feel I belonged to. Well, there's life, and then there's later. Maybe it's myself that I miss. The field, and the sparrow singing at the edge of the woods. And the doe that one morning came upon me unaware, all tense and gorgeous. She stamped her hoof as you would to any intruder. Then gave me a long look, as if to say, Okay, you stay in your patch, I'll stay in mine. Which is what we did. Try packing that up, South America. ("Blueberries", Mary Oliver, printed in Blue Horses, 2014)
Why the wasp was on my bed I didn't know. Why I was in bed I did know. Why there wasn't room for both of us I didn't know. I watched it idly. Idleness can be a form of dying, I did know that. The wasp didn't communicate how it felt. It did look confused on the white sheet, as though it had landed somewhere in the Arctic. And it did flick its wings when I raised my legs, causing an upheaval. I didn't want to be lying there. I didn't want to be going in that direction. And so I say it was a gift when it rose into the air and, as wasps do, expressed itself in a sudden and well-aimed motion. Almost delicious was its deep, inflexible sting. ("The Wasp", Mary Oliver, printed in Blue Horses, 2014)
"Hello, wren" is the first thing I say. "Where did you come from appearing so sudden and cheerful in the privet? Which, by the way, has decided to decorate itself in so many white blossoms."
Paulus is coming to visit! Paulus the dancer, the potter. Who is just beginning his eightieth decade, who walks without shoes in the woods because his feet, he says, ask to be in touch with the earth. Paulus who when he says my poems sometimes changes them a little, according to the occasion or his own feelings. Okay, I say.
Stay young, always, in the theater of your mind.
Bless the notebook that I always carry in my pocket. And the pen. Bless the words with which I try to say what I see, think, or feel. With gratitude for the grace of the earth. The expected and the exception, both. For all the hours I have been given to be in this world.
The multiplicity of forms! The hummingbird, the fox, the raven, the sparrow hawk, the otter, the dragonfly, the water lily! And on and on. It must be a great disappointment to God if we are not dazzled at least ten times a day.
Slowly the morning climbs toward the day. As for the poem, not this poem but any poem, do you feel its sting? Do you feel its hope, its entrance to a community? Do you feel its hand in your hand?
But perhaps you're still sleeping. I could wake you with a touch or a kiss. But so could I shake the petals from the wild rose which blossoms so silently and perfectly, and I do not.
("Good Morning", Mary Oliver, in Blue Horses, 2014)
by the randomness of the way the rocks tumbled ages ago the water pours it pours it pours ever along the slant of downgrade dashing its silver thumbs against the rocks or pausing to carve a sudden curled space where the flashing fish splash or drowse while the kingfisher overhead rattles and stares and so it continues for miles this bolt of light, its only industry to descend and to be beautiful while it does so; as for purpose there is none, it is simply one of those gorgeous things that was made to do what it does perfectly and to last, as almost nothing does, almost forever. ("Stebbin's Gulch", Mary Oliver, in Blue Horses, 2014)
The television has two instruments that control it. I get confused. The washer asks me, do you want regular or delicate? Honestly, I just want clean. Everything is like that. I won't even mention cell phones. I can turn on the light of the lamp beside my chair where a book is waiting, but that's about it. Oh yes, and I can strike a match and make a fire. ("What I Can Do", Mary Oliver, in Blue Horses, 2014)
I step into the painting of the four blue horses. I am not even surprised that I can do this. One of the horses walks toward me. His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm over his blue mane, not holding on, just commingling. He allows me my pleasure. Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain. I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses what war is. They would either faint in horror, or simply find it impossible to believe. I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc. Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually. Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us. Now all four horses have come closer, are bending their faces toward me as if they have secrets to tell. I don't expect them to speak, and they don't. If being so beautiful isn't enough, what could they possible say? ("Franz Marc's Blue Horses", Mary Oliver, in Blue Horses 2014)
This is Franz Marc’s Tower of Blue Horses. It is the picture on the cover of Mary Oliver’s book, Blue Horses, so I believe it is the work that she wrote the poem about. I retrieved the image from FranzMarc.org. I don’t know much about Franz Marc, but I think it would have made him happy to know Mary Oliver appreciated his work and wrote about it so that her readers could know about him too. How special, that she would pay such a great tribute to this artist who died so young in World War I.
I heard the Poor Old Woman say: "At break of day the fowler came, And took my blackbirds from their songs Who loved me well thro' shame and blame. "No more from lovely distances Their songs shall bless me mile by mile, Nor to white Ashbourne call me down To wear my crown another while. "With bended flowers the angels mark For the skylark the place they lie, From there its little family Shall dip their wings first in the sky. "And when the first surprise of flight Sweet songs excite, from the far dawn Shall there come blackbirds loud with love, Sweet echoes of the singers gone. "But in the lonely hush of eve Weeping I grieve the silent bills." I heard the Poor Old Woman say In Derry of the little hills. ("Lament for the Poets: 1916", by Francis Ledwidge, printed in Poems of the Irish People, 2016)