intuiting with Mary Oliver

The beginning of the school year for me is always a time of advice. New students come into the fray of doing the work to better their lives via education, making the necessary sacrifices of time, energy, and finances. It’s a sensitive position, and I work hard to be sensitive to it. Whether the topic is making decisions about what classes to take or simply a poem or essay they are working on, one of the things I think I’m guiding a student towards is intuition. I figure if a person learns to listen to themselves and hear what they already know, they’ll be that much more aware of what they don’t know and how to seek it out.

night treesThis week’s poem – “The Journey” by Mary Oliver – is a poem that I associate it with this kind of intuition and listening. The poem is grounded in a narrative that is richly ambiguous; the choice of the second person “you” address brings a reader close to the stakes of the poem while the language is kept in a register that is accessible and fluid. Yet, rather than fall into any cliches about “journeys,” the poem creates a creeping urgency through its physicality. A house “trembles”; something “tugs” at the ankles; and by the end, the you is striding forward with a newfound conviction, if not confidence.

This poem, in particular, is a favorite because this feeling I’m attempting to describe remains consistent over my twenty years of admiration and rereading. The poem lives in a lyrical mode that asks the reader to be present in themselves, a position where all strong writing – and living – begins.

The Journey – Mary Oliver

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 you could save.

from Dream Work (The Atlantic Monthly Press)

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