in the deepening shade; I hear my echo in the echoing woodâ€”A lord of nature weeping to a tree. I live between the heron and the wren, beasts of the hill and serpents of the den. Whatâ€™s madness but nobility of the soul at odds with circumstance? The dayâ€™s on fire! I know the purity of despair, my shadow pinned against a sweating wall. That place among the rocksâ€”is it a cave, or winding path? The edge is what I have. A steam storm of correspondences! A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon, and in broad day theÂ midnightÂ come again! A man goes far to find out what he isâ€”death of the self in a long, tearless night, all natural shapes blazing unnatural light. Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire. My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly, keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I? A fallen man, I climb out of my fear. The mind enters itself, and God the mind, and one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Thatâ€™s Theodore Roethke, and this is Professor Barbara Mossberg, Dr. B, welcoming you to our Poetry Slow Down, with Producer Zappa Johns on Californiaâ€™s Central Coast, and I began this with you nine time zones away on the Swedish archipelago,Â Â making the morning last with our show (if the shoe fits, hear it!), the news you need, the news you heed, the news â€œwithout which men die miserably every dayâ€ (says William Carlos Williams, who as a physician would know). Birds have something profoundly, I think, to do with this work to break open the morning in each of us, and soÂ our show today is going to the birds . . .
I end up spending the morning reading about birds andÂ Â reflecting on the human mind, that sees the world in such detail, with such attention, and giving to what is out there such respect and affectionâ€”and I donâ€™t know my birds, the birds I know are learned from literature, Nabokovâ€™sÂ Pale Fire, Poeâ€™s â€œThe Raven,â€ Yeatsâ€™ swans and falcons, Coleridgeâ€™s albatross, Dickinsonâ€™s robin and hummingbird (a poem which almost derailed my career in literature), and I try to express herons and cranes in my poetry; and songsâ€”because of Leonard Cohenâ€™s bird on the wire, I SEE birds on the wire, and think of him, Anne Murrayâ€™s snowbird, â€œfly-eye-eye-away, away with you,â€ and Bob Marleyâ€™s, Donâ€™t Worry About a Thing, his lines â€œwoke up this morning, smiled at the rising sun, three little birds sat on my doorstep singing, a song thatâ€™s pure and true, this is my message to you-ou-ou-ou.â€ So I find myself looking for birds, noticing birds, letting them into my consciousness in a new way, because of songs and poems about birds. What is it about poetry that does this?
The world becomes more real to me through poetry; I become more sighted; open-eyed. And I realize, to see birds, to notice them, you um . . . canâ€™t be going too fast . . . you have to slow down, be at essential standing speed, and even thatâ€™s too fast, you have to be sitting or lying, and still, your mind has to be at rest, and open, and if you are still, then you can see the motion of the world, the birds . . . some of our most ancient companions on earth . . . but Professor Mossberg, I, like, work in an office, in a city, where am I going to be sitting and lying and looking at birds? Except pigeons, on the plaza, where we sit eating from the carts . . . I live in an apartment, where am I seeing birds? And Christer wants to see birds in Oregon, so he puts up a bird feeder to bring them close, and what happens? You already know, you already are saying, seven pumper, no, no seven pumpers! But yes, squirrels, and sometimes a bold jay, but mostly, squirrels. So I realize that to see birds is necessarily to be in a natural universe of trees and plants and flowers but even so, it is to be in such a way that we can really see them.
Because I am thinking now of something else one of our listeners sent me, a story about crows in the city. So there are city birds. But one sure way to notice birds, and have them in our life, out our window, is in poetry, because poets are Whitmanly [my spell check corrects this as â€œWhit manlyâ€] lying and loafing and taking their ease, Thoreau on his four hour walks, Muir on his ten hour walks covering one mile, Mary Oliver taking off the day (wouldnâ€™t youâ€”what are you going to do with your â€œone wild and precious life?â€), Dickinson perched at her second story window, eyes open, pen and notebook in hand, day in and day out, pondering â€œthis tremendous scene, this whole experiment in green, as if it were HER ownâ€ –they are our observers, our citizen scientists at the watch, and so letâ€™s hear some of the poems about birds, and you know what,Â The Poetry Slow Down, it turns out, when you think of it, that birds are a major topic of poetryâ€”name your favorite poet and thereâ€™s a bird. So weâ€™ll hear a few: and in the process, weâ€™ll explore what birds mean to us in our journey of learning about being human, the gift of consciousness of being alive on earth in this form, with these brains, our purpose here . . . what can we learn, from how some poet somewhere looks up at the sky, or at a bush, or grass, and sees something with eyes, two feet, but also, wings, who can walk and hop on ground, like us, and then at the drop of a hat, lift off, soar.
Imagining this, I thought of a word for the community of listeners ofÂ The Poetry Slow Down: aÂ flight. We join each other in the air, through air waves, ricocheted from space, sonically we are connected by vibrations, our ear canals, our brain pathways, as birds, and as birds communicate and navigate with celestial processes. . . itâ€™s not aÂ flock, exactly, weâ€™re all over the place, we are in Texas, and New Jersey, and Manhattan, and Princeton, and Westwood, and Carmel Valley, and Pacific Grove, and Estes Park, and Oregon and Alaska and England and Poland and Australia and Vermont and Santa Cruz and Washington, D.C., weâ€™re teenagers, weâ€™re retired, weâ€™re professional poets, weâ€™re teachers, weâ€™re physicians and scientists, weâ€™re caregivers, weâ€™re singers, weâ€™re grandmas, we ride motorcycles, we pilot planes, we practice law and yoga and we live on the 20thfloor, we live on a cattle ranch, but we are all here at this moment, joined physically and literally in our brains.Â Â . . . Well, I will think of this metaphor, and you think too. The physics of our communityâ€”you know how in quantum theory, experiments with matter, when you get the nano level, and you split the smallest entity we can imagine, and you take one half of it and take it to Parisâ€”thatâ€™s the side I want to be on, you say, and Iâ€™m with you thereâ€”and the other you have in Los Angeles, and you poke the one in LA, and set it quivering, and at the same instant, even on different time zones, that other part in Paris is carrying on identically as if it too were poked. Well thatâ€™s us, atÂ The Poetry Slow Down, right here and now, we are all connected by listening to a poet who perhaps wrote down these lines hundreds of years ago, in some garden, and what are those years, what are those miles, nothing, it is all here in the now, which dwells in our right brain, where â€œall is groovyâ€â€”literally. IÂ wasthinking of us as aÂ stand, as we call birches, that are trees above ground but all connected in our root systems underground, one organic entity arising from earth, or, in this sense, an â€œunderstandâ€ of listening community, or, an â€œunder-standing,â€ anÂ understandingof listeners. This expresses the organic wholeness of my sense of our community, bonded by the sound of the word, the thinking about poetry, our common â€œground.â€ But the â€œflightâ€ idea in its relation to birds and what poetry does to us, how it takes our mind and lifts off to places we can never get to on our feet, this soaring brain travel–Dickinson said, â€œthe brain is wider than the skyâ€â€”well, I will keep thinking, and you too.
So the poems we will feature on noticing birds, our fellow creatures who inspire us, and whom I now realize that to see and know r requires botany, biology, art (I am dazzled by the vocabulary required and flamboyantly displayed in the discussion of bird characteristics), physics, and who knows what else. O, yes, of course: poetry. Poetry opens us to see, so hereâ€™s starters for our eye-opening line up: Teyhimba Jess
gets us into the mood with things flying around suspended like a Chagall painting in â€œWhat the Wind, Rain, and Thunder Said to Tom . . . .â€ Weâ€™ll consider the most famous bird in poetry. Emily Dickinsonâ€™s hope, the thing with feathers, or Poeâ€™s raven? We will hear Dickinsonâ€™s robin, and John Muirâ€™s Water-Ousel (water thrush), and Mary Oliverâ€™s thrush in â€œSuch Singing in the Wild Branches.â€ There is Shelleyâ€™sÂ ode to the skylark, Keatsâ€™ to a nightingale, James Wrightâ€™s chicken hawk seen from his hammock, William Carlos Williamsâ€™ white chickens on which so much depends, Gerard Manley Hopkinsâ€™ falcon, his â€œbright wings,â€ Yeatsâ€™ falcon and swan, Wallace Stevensâ€™ 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, and Ted Hughesâ€™ crows in â€œCrow Blacker Than Ever,â€
and then weâ€™ll look at contemporary poets, and classic poets, and the Sphinx, and role of birds as prophecy, birds in our language (Peter Pan: Iâ€™ve got to crow!). Iâ€™ll share my poems on cranes and herons, which I donâ€™t start out to write about, I start out trying to write a love poem to my husband, and somehow it always ends up about these birds, that is where love takes us. Flights . . . .
And this is where hearing from you takes me, the mindâ€™s flights . . .so write me atÂ firstname.lastname@example.org, orÂ Barbara.email@example.com, and let me know how and when you listen, and Producer Zappa Johns and I will be on the case to make sure we are hear for you, slowing down for the news without which men die miserably every day, but not you, not us, O poetry slow down flight, thanking you, dear listener, in my mind and heart this June morning.
Embrace the complexity and drama of your life. That is certainly what we find when we look withinâ€”yes, chaosâ€”as well as gifts, talents, to fulfil the purpose we are blessed with. But what is that purpose?
So thatâ€™s what weâ€™re going to get at next week with poetry, dear listener right hear, hear hear!â€”why poetry? Whatâ€™s the connection with poetry and a sense of our lifeâ€™s purpose? Perhapsâ€”Iâ€™m thinking out loud hereâ€”the kind of person who takes the time to struggle to write down oneâ€™s thoughts about how we see this world, who feels called by consciousness to do something about what we see, feel, hear, think, has some purposeâ€”to tell us. It seems that we who read poetry, who hear poetry, imagined or real, are the solution: if we can hear this, then that poetâ€™s purpose is served. The poet doesnâ€™t know for sure that someone will see or hear their linesâ€”everâ€”but the imagined possibility drives one to set down oneâ€™s thoughts, to work it out in language art, to say it just so . . . and perhaps tht gives poets a poetic leg up on the wisdom of purpose. What did the good Rumi say?
But the truth is itâ€™s hard to glean meaningâ€”isnâ€™t that the biggest paradox of being human? T.S. Eliot said we had the experience but missed the meaning. What? How can that be? Itâ€™s very humbling and comic, not to know the meaning of what we ourselves personally experience. Does this mean meaning is extrinsic to reality, that we can live without it? Without purpose? As in, to mean, to intend, is to have a purpose . . . Billy Collins as a poet makes fun of us in this way, in his poem â€œIntroduction to Poetry. â€œWe beatÂ Â and torture poetry to extract its meaning.
And yet to find our purpose may be hard work but perhaps we canâ€™t find it unless we lighten up, take a lighter approach, donâ€™t bludgeon it, as Collins says. I donâ€™t know! Mary Oliver is so clear about her purpose, being in a summer garden, you all know this poem by heart, I know, â€œThe Summer Day.â€ :
This has to be one of the most famous and beloved poems of our time. Why, what is here? Is it the ancient Jobâ€”wisdom, calling out the Creator? But what sheâ€™s asking of us is our sense of purposeâ€”how we are to act intentionally with our time and energy and spiritâ€”as Thoreau said, he went to the woods to live deliberately, and not find at the end of his life he hasnâ€™t lived at all. His purpose that is, is to live with purpose, and that without such purpose, it isnâ€™t life at all. For him, the woods is whatever place he can be mindful of purpose, the equivalent of Oliverâ€™s grass in which she is lying. So weâ€™ll tramp around some with this question, and hear from Walt Whitman, and contemporary poets. This is the news we need.
THANK YOU, Producer Zappa Johns, and you, dear listener, our flight: it is our purpose to serve you well, breaking morning out of darkness, and making it last: Iâ€™m your host, Professor Barbara Mossberg.
Â©Â Barbara Mossberg 2018