Monday, April 4, 2016

Mary Oliver: Time Well Spent--70 Hours Per Poem

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

April is poetry month so I’m continuing to discuss Mary Oliver’s entrancing books.

Ray Bradbury makes this recommendation to writers on page 36 of Zen in the Art of Writing:

Read poetry every day of your life…it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough…it expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.

          Mary Oliver, who publishes both poems and prose, discussed writing poetry in Blue Pastures. On page 59, she wrote:

It takes about

seventy hours to drag

a poem into

the light.


          Oliver’s poems range from four to thirty-six lines with occasionally longer pieces. To find out it takes about seventy hours per poem is amazing, daunting—and unsurprising.

          If you have read Mary Oliver’s poems, you know she transports her readers whether to the edge of a pond (“The Notebook” page 44 of House of Light), the midst of the human condition (“Halleluiah” page 19 of Evidence), or inside a painting (“Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” page 43 of Blue Horses: Poems). She does this simply with word choices—the craft of all writers yet she hones them to the stratosphere.

          Oliver reaches these heights by writing and rewriting, reading and rereading. At age 80, she’s been doing this for decades. Her talent shines due to the tens of thousands of hours she has spent writing using the 70-hours-per-published-poem math plus the untold hours spent on her prose. Add on the hours she wrote as a child, student, and unpublished writer until age 28 and it isn’t surprising she is among the best writers in the world.

          Consider a work week is 40 hours. Oliver spends an average of 8.75 work days on a single poem. That’s dedication. That’s commitment. That’s why her poems are compelling, as well as why she is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

          Oliver’s favorite topic is nature. In her poem “Good Morning,” she ponders the vastly different life forms on earth remarking:

                   “It must be a great disappointment

to God if we are not dazzled at least ten

times a day.”

                   (pp. 21-23, stanza 5, in the book Blue Horses: Poems)

          Oliver is often dazzled and shares this in her poems and observations. She knows nature isn’t cute so she writes of death as well as life. Many of her poems like “You Are Standing at the Edge of the Woods” on page 21 of What Do We Know and “Mindful” on pp. 58-59 of Why I Wake Early transform my vision of the world.

          I recommend all writers read Blue Pastures which includes more luminous writings about nature as well as her story of becoming a poet and writer. Here’s how she views her calling:

“Poetry, after all, is not a miracle. It is an effort to formalize (ritualize) individual moments and the transcending effects of these moments into a music that all can use. It is the song of our species.” (page 59)

          Oliver’s advice for all writers which cannot be repeated often enough: give your writing power and time—look for verbs of muscle and adjectives of exactitude. It’s just as simple and difficult as that.

          It’s also what makes Mary Oliver’s poetry dazzling.

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