Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Arrangement of Words

In English class, when I was young, I learned to diagram sentences. A rudimentary activity, and not one known to coax magic out from the fibers of the page. More akin to the study of skeletons, for one sees how the bones connect all the while acutely aware that no breath of feeling is present. But just as the fibia gives us what we need to run through a meadow, and the humerus provides us the strength required to paint the Mona Lisa or to lift a giggling baby in the air, the arrangement of letters and words, sentence and verse, gives us the ability to see beneath the surface of our lives - to uncover, and communicate, truth.

How wondrous is language. And how wonderful to encounter those who use it well. Who among us has not read a passage in a book so beautifully written, so compelling, that we read it over and over, perhaps even copying it down to squirrel away for future reference? Who has not heard a speech from an orator so inspiring, so enlightening, that we have been moved to take a stand for something in which we truly believe, rather than remain encased in our timidity? Or conversely, who among us has not read a book, or heard a speech, so dreadfully written, with words galumphing along to such a calamitous finish that they invite groans of frustration.
Yes, the arrangement of words is a powerful thing.

The older I get, the more I love poetry. True poets communicate in feelings. Their well-arranged words allow me to actually
feel what is on the page; all my senses are in play. Their verse can brush my face with a warm sea breeze, or sting me with an icy needled blast. I can see the pathway through the forest, smell the damp blackness of the mysterious earth, hear the papered leaves crackle under my feet as I walk.
I touch the mane of a lion, I hear the call of a loon. I taste the bright red plum.
A poet’s words may enter through the brain, but they speak to the soul, invoking a recognition of one’s true self that is often impossible to articulate. “What does that poem mean?”, we are asked. How does one explain what the heart understands.

Today is the birthday of my favourite poet, Mary Oliver. Her poems speak to me like no others. The words she employs are simple ones, but in her hands, their arrangement is profound. I wish her a most happy day.

Painting above by Alan Banks

A Dream of Trees

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,

A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company.
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees,
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

by Mary Oliver
born September 10th, 1935