The late great Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, throwing down the inspirational gauntlet in a poem called “The Summer Day,” asks each of us a brilliant, exciting, and intimidating question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
How is that for a show-stopper of a question? It brings to mind a recent story.
Hurriedly exiting one of our local food stores, a bag of groceries in one hand, a partially completed to-do list in the other, I found myself wildly distracted, paying precious little attention to my immediate surroundings. Which is to say, it was a typical pre-occupied moment in my life. Ever have this feeling? It’s a kind of exiled moment where life seems to hurry by faster and faster, much like a speeding bullet.
For me, I was stuck in a cerebral vortex (a.k.a. Monkey Mind) vacillating between future worry and past regret, when suddenly the ant-trail of people exiting the store in front and behind me came to a quick stop. Somewhat irritated, I took a quick measure of the human traffic jam, in which I was suddenly stuck. Bingo! I recognized the offending party.
It was neither man nor woman. Rather, it was a 2-ish-year-old little girl. Yes, she was cute and yes, she was able to squat like a sumo wrestler. She was toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose with a gardenia plant in a 1-gallon green plastic bucket. That’s when at the top of her exceptionally healthy lungs, the little girl excitedly declared… It’s a flower!
Everything stopped. The Dad, to his credit, did not intervene or rush his daughter. Suddenly I grew more interested than irritated. Of course, I had no idea what thoughts were coursing through the minds of others at the scene, but for me, I suddenly realized this little girl was absolutely right. It is a flower! Not only that! The sky was radiant blue. My bag of groceries, soon to be cooked would be delicious. And, all the while my car waited patiently to whisk me away to my comfortable, warm home just over the hill. Ecstasy!
For days and weeks after, I continued to mine this event for insights. My first one was simply remembering how much we adults love the openness, transparency and utter spontaneous presence of children. And yes, these are the very same traits we admire in artists as well, especially poets. Grow up? Yes, of course, we must. Grow fixed, rigid, and unyielding with age and time? No, please not that fate! Poetry helps.
The poet (and lovers of poems) constantly engage in poetic cures for rigidity. They practice stepping away from all those fossilized cultural imperatives and assumptions. And in doing so experience the world fresh and new again, taking us right along with them on this ah-ha journey.
But wait can it be there are more than one flavor of breakthrough?
Yes! In fact, there are at least seven poetic power tools for helping us become an Ah-Ha Jedi. Good poetry helps us remember who we actually are and how we are connected to others. It helps us understand the world in more whole and transparent ways. Good poetry restores a kind of authentic hope and inspiration. It re-balances our fragmented social-media-shortened attention spans while providing growth for our intuitive, non-linear, emotional and empathetic selves. Good poetry also helps us more fully and genuinely grieve our losses. And also, it encourages feelings of deep empathy, thanks and gratitude.
These are the seven kinds of ah-ha moments that bring us back to our full and connected human potential and power. All these things, of course, interrupt the distractive, all-consuming parts of our culture that steal our sense of connection, peace of mind, and pleasure.
So what about an example? OK. May I suggest you read this one out loud and with gusto.
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
–William Butler Yeats
What a simple scene Yeats paints in this poem. How compelling to take a moment to re-balance our selves in this era of being constantly distracted and tethered to our screens. And what a magic moment of remembering and deep understanding described in this piece.
Many years ago when I first learned this poem by heart it was not true. I was not yet fifty years old, which is no longer the case. I love it even more now.
For me, the first thing the poem did, was help me remember how easy and simple happiness can be. It also inspired me to carve out more time for those cups of coffee and open books upon coffee-shop tables as I do nothing more productive than gaze out on the street. (And write!)
Such a moment as Yeats describes may be beyond intellectual knowing, but it is not beyond the heart’s ability to understand. Again ecstasy!
So what about you? Have you ever felt a sudden blaze where everything made a kind of beautiful and heartfelt sense? I mean have you ever been eye-to-eye with a gardenia and did you (or were you tempted to) yell out loud… It’s a flower! Might you consider doing so next time?
PS: Here is my challenge if this poem engaged you. That is to say, if you like this poem then memorize it or print it out and place it somewhere handy. Take it like medicine daily for a week or two. Study its effects. Send me a note with your observations and findings as I would love to hear your experience.
PS PS: I’ve got a number of webinars, courses, and events coming up soon if you live in the SF Bay Area. Or, an e-course available worldwide:
- For the month of March, the good folks at Gratefulness.org will offer special pricing on a number of on-demand e-courses, one of which is mine, called A Fierce and Enduring Gratitude: How Poetry Supports Us In Good Times and Bad. Other e-courses feature Brother David Steindl-Rast and Christian Plebst, David Whyte, Owen Griffiths, and Lynne Twist. Go here to register.
- I’ll be teaching a six-week course at Dominican University in San Rafael, CA called:The Seven Secret Powers of Poetry: Reclaiming the Mystery and Meaning of Life. The course will be held on Wednesdays, March 27 – May 1, 2019. Go here to register.
- I’ll be presenting at the Marin JCC a program entitled Poetry – Tool for Living Tue, April 16, 2019, 1:00 pm – 2:30 pm. Go here to register.
- Lastly, and TBA Soon: A Special Celebration presentation for the life and poetry of Mary Oliver.
Vacillation by W.B. Yeats. All rights released into Public Domain.