Thoughts on Mary Oliver

“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…” – Mary Oliver, Upstream

upstream

 

I’m a big fan of Mary Oliver’s writing. She makes connections, or rather shows connections, that are not obvious on the surface. Her descriptions of nature do more than make you want to re-read the passage. They make you want to go see the world for yourself and then re-read the passage. Her poems are bereft of sentimentality, but full of mindful observation. And I can guarantee there’s some sweat behind those words.

Here’s the thing about writing poetry — it takes work. A surprising number of people don’t seem to know this. I’ve witnessed more than once an acquaintance who, having read only a handful of poems in a lifetime, stumbles upon one of Oliver’s more moving pieces of verse (often Wild Geese) and decides “I, too, will be a poet.” Which is wonderful. It’s wonderful when a writer inspires others to write. But some of these folks harbor the delusion that all it takes to become another Mary Oliver is a walk in the woods, followed by fifteen minutes with a pen, scribbling the first thoughts that come to mind.

I’m not saying it’s a waste of time if you want to do this. It can be a great centering activity and increase your awareness of the world. I am saying not to expect to produce a Great Poem, one that will be anthologized and inspire future generations, without toil. Don’t expect to produce good writing without study, without putting in many hours reading your genre (whether it’s poetry or science fiction or a melding of the two.)

My hope is that everyone with a desire to “write like Mary Oliver” will read her book, Upstream. Notice the phrase “meticulous effort” in the quote above? In Upstream, she speaks a lot about the value of work. She also shares many thoughts about writers who have influenced her – Whitman, Poe, Emerson, Wordsworth. She has read them thoroughly, delving into their techniques and examining the contexts of their lives. She brings the same keen gaze to literature that she does to trees and geese and dogs, looking deeply into the nature of the writing and how it fits into the web of all things.

The woman has put a lot of effort into producing sets of words that stir the souls of her readers. Once we realize this, we can appreciate her even more.

 

 

Ursula K. Le Guin on Literature Vs. Genre

I don’t usually use a blog post only for a link, but I believe everyone needs to read this brilliant essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. And then, if you haven’t already, read some of her books. My favorite is “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

An excerpt from the essay: “If we thought of all fictional genres as literature, we’d be done with the time-wasting, ill-natured diatribes and sneers against popular novelists who don’t write by the rules of realism, the banning of imaginative writing from MFA writing courses, the failure of so many English teachers to teach what people actually read, and the endless, silly apologising for actually reading it.”

Read the whole thing here:

http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2012/06/18/le-guin-s-hypothesis/

Favorite Romances

I don’t read genre romances. I’m not knocking them; only saying they’re not my thing. But I am a sucker for a love story, happy or tragic or confused, as long as it’s well done. Sometimes the relationship is the story, and sometimes it’s only part of the bigger picture.  Off the top of my head, here’s a list of books with my favorite romances. These are in no particular order.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This is a tale of two magicians, a girl and boy, bound into a rivalry as children. The venue of their lifelong duel is a magical, mysterious circus.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Oh Gatsby – you let Daisy consume you too much.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. This series has two relationships I adore. Precious Ramotswe and JLB Matakoni is the first. Grace Makutsi and Phuti Radiphuti. They’re so real and sweet and awkward.

Second Nature by Alice Hoffman.  Nearly feral love with a semi-werewolf.

Emma by Jane Austen.  The intrepid match-maker who can’t see her own life clearly. For those who have never read Jane Austen and think she’s stuffy, you couldn’t be more wrong. This book is downright funny. Also touching.

Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler. Flawed and wonderful characters who stumble through wrong relationships on their way to each other.

 

 

 

The Right Book at the Right Time

A friend recently shared the information that her daughter had been assigned to read the book Beloved by Toni Morrison for a high school class last spring. The daughter struggled through the text, disliking it all the way through.

Beloved is one of my favorite works of literature. But I first read it in my early thirties, after my children were born. Would I have understood the book at age 16? Parts, I think. Would I have liked it? I’m not sure, but I think not. I came upon the book at the right time in my life, after I’d had enough life experience to be haunted by some true regrets.

Thinking back, I can recall books I’ve read in years past that left me shaking my head in bewilderment. Crime and Punishment comes to mind. I wonder if I should re-read it now. Maybe I’d get it in some fundamental way I didn’t before. Or maybe not.

I did read, enjoy, and understand many “adult-level” books in my adolescence. So I’ve put very few restrictions on what my kids read.  I think they’ll either be ready for a book or they won’t and they’ll figure it out for themselves. Maybe there are hundreds of teens out there who do appreciate Beloved. Maybe there are even some who appreciate Crime and Punishment.

I remember the first true grown-up book I read and enjoyed. It was A Tale of Two Cities. But I had started to read it twice before I finally finished it on the third go.

My 11-year-old son just finished reading the Harry Potter series. When he was younger, we read the first couple of books to him, but he lost interest even as the rest of us in the family were avidly reading and discussing the series. He’d say “I don’t see what the big deal is. I don’t think they’re interesting.”

Then one day around his 11th birthday (the same age as the main character at the beginning of the story), he was looking for something to do, having used his allowed computer time for the day. He spotted Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone lying out on top of the bookcase and picked it up. Two hours later, he looked up and told me “This book is better than I remembered.”

He proceeded to read all seven books straight through. He’d become ready for them.

I think what I’ve figured out is that not only should you not judge a book by its cover. You possibly shouldn’t even judge it by your first reading of it. True, there are many honestly terrible books out there. But sometimes a book I don’t like right off may deserve a second look.