Ode to Details: How Mary Oliver Moves Things

(This is the second in a series about how books can become more than words and how they can be used in our lives and work. If you don’t have the time or inclination to take in all the words, we can offer a shortcut to a few important places.)

The people who know all the things say that if you want to write, you should read.  Since most aspiring writers love words, this is a little like telling fish to swim.  But this advice contains some truth for all of us, whether we ever want our words on paper or not: If you want to put good ideas out in the world, or you want to move people to some action, the right words help. We need the right words when we’re talking across tables, or typing across screens.  And we have a better chance of finding effective words if we’re always on the look for them.  They might show up anywhere.  They could be written, spoken, sung, painted, tattooed, signed. If we look closely, the world is filled with arranged words designed to move. One of my favorite collection of words was stuck on the side of an independent taxicab:

“We here to take you there.”

The right word for this line might be poetry.

Like the villains of Dead Poets Society, we have a tendency in our culture to consider poetry inconsequential.  We limit poetry’s value to the art of wooing women or filling dusty old books.

But poetry is written by people trying to follow the impulse we all have to put words to what it means to be in the world. More than that, poets are often trying to propel and compel people to move.  It’s the same thing we’re all trying to do when we tell a story, make a video, or pitch a product: We here…to take you there.

There are a lot of poets I want the whole world to read and whose words I wish we would all Use: Denise Levertov, Maya Angelou, Wendell Berry, Langston Hughes, Christian Wiman.  But since the New York Times called her the “country’s best-selling poet,” we might as well consider Mary Oliver and how we might Use what she does to do what we want to do.

-Oliver’s poetry starts with what people know and then takes them somewhere they don’t expect.  We expect a poet to describe the beauty of a flower but in “Peonies,” she takes a turn toward vulnerability:

The green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart.

It’s surprising.  It makes a delicate pink flower powerful in a way we don’t see coming but that should be true.

-Like a good storyteller, Oliver zooms in on details that reflect great truths.  In one of her most famous poems, “The Summer Day,” she describes the intimacy of watching a grasshopper move, noting its’ eyes, arms, wings, and jaw. (Did you know grasshoppers have jaws?  Poets do.) She connects us to the grasshopper and the grasshopper to the giant purposes of life.  The grasshopper is the set-up to her most famous line, painted on dorm halls all over the world:

“What is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?”

-More than anything, Oliver reminds us of the great value of paying attention.  I wonder, as I move through a downtown filled with cement and bricks instead of peonies and grasshoppers, what would Mary Oliver see here?  What am I (we) missing that’s beautiful?  What am I (we) missing that connects me to the world?  What untold story is just waiting for good words to come along?  In a poem about visiting Walden, and walking in the path of Henry David Thoreau, another great pay-attentioner, Oliver makes the case that all of our places might be more filled than we know:

“Going to Walden is not so easy a thing

As a green visit.  It is the slow and difficult

Trick of living, and finding it where you are.”

Maybe moving people along and finding words that lead to action starts with paying attention to the place and moment we’re in. What can you help people see?

“We here to take you here.”

Rebel Pilgrim is a creative agency based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rebel Pilgrim believes that story is the only way to spark change and create excitement for any business or product. Start converting your uninterested crowds into engaged clients using the power of storytelling.