Almost a Voice

"In the act of writing the poem, I am obedient, and submissive. Insofar as one can, I put aside ego and vanity, and even intention. I listen. What I hear is almost a voice, almost a language. It is a second ocean, rising, singing into one’s ear, or deep inside the ears, whispering in the recesses where one is less oneself than a part of some single indivisible community. Blake spoke of taking dictation. I am no Blake, yet I know the nature of what he meant. Every poet knows it. One learns the craft, and then casts off. One hopes for gifts. One hopes for direction. It is both physical, and spooky. It is intimate, and inapprehensible. Perhaps it is for this reason that the act of first-writing, for me, involves nothing more complicated than paper and pencil. The abilities of a typewriter or computer would not help in this act of slow and deep listening."

~ Mary Oliver, from Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems

The Owl Who Comes
By Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems: Volume Two

the owl who comes
through the dark
to sit
in the black boughs of the apple tree

and stare down
the hook of his beak,
dead silent,
and his eyes,

like two moons
in the distance,
soft and shining
under their heavy lashes—

like the most beautiful lie—
is thinking
of nothing
as he watches

and waits to see
what might appear,
briskly,
out of the seamless,

deep winter—
out of the teeming
world below—
and if i wish the owl luck,

and I do,
what am I wishing for that other
soft life,
climbing through the snow?

what we must do,
I suppose,
is to hope the world
keeps its balance;

what we are to do, however,
with our hearts
waiting and watching—truly
I do not know.

The Journey
by Mary Oliver, from Dream Work 

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you 
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house 
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.

It was already late 
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company 
as you strode deeper and deeper into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life that you could save.


See also: Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden