Thursday

Sep. 10, 2009

Self-Portrait

by Mary Oliver

The text of this poem is no longer available.

"Self-Portrait" by Mary Oliver, from Red Bird. © Beacon Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of editor and essayist Cyril Connolly, (books by this author) born in Whitley, England (1903). He was one of the most important English literary critics and edited the literary journal Horizon from 1940 to 1950, publishing authors like W.H. Auden and George Orwell. As a young man, he described himself as, "dirty, inky, miserable, untidy … a coward at games, lazy at work, unpopular with my masters and superiors, anxious to curry favour and yet to bully whom I dared." He said that he drifted into being a literary critic through unemployability. He published one novel, The Rock Pool (1936).

He wrote, "The true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece … no other task is of any consequence."

It's the birthday of naturalist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould, (books by this author) born in New York City (1941). He became famous for his monthly columns in Natural History magazine, which were collected in books like The Panda's Thumb (1980) and The Flamingo's Smile (1985). He wrote about everything from the changing face of Mickey Mouse to the inefficiency of IQ tests, to his own cancer. He loved the fact that when he was diagnosed with cancer, the average life expectancy was eight months, and he lived for 20 more years.

Stephen Jay Gould said, "Homo sapiens [are] a tiny twig on an improbable branch of a contingent limb on a fortunate tree."

It's the birthday of the poet who wrote under the initials H.D., Hilda Doolittle, (books by this author) born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1886). She met Ezra Pound when she was a teenager and they fell in love, but her father forced her to break off the relationship. They stayed friends, and Pound brought her armfuls of books to read every day. She followed him to Europe, and when she showed him some of her poems, he loved them and sent them to Poetry magazine, signing them for her, "H.D. Imagist." He invented a new school of poetry based on her work that he called Imagism, which broke from formal metered verse and used clear, simple language to describe the world. She went on to publish many collections of poetry, including Sea Garden (1916) and Red Roses for Bronze (1929). She wrote, "To sing love, / love must first shatter us."

It's the birthday of poet Mary Oliver, (books by this author) born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland (1935). She won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for her collection American Primitive (1983) and the 1992 National Book Award for New and Selected Poems (1992).

She's one of the best-selling poets in America, and she's also a very private person, giving relatively few interviews or details about her personal life. She taught in Bennington, Vermont, throughout the 1990s and currently lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She once wrote in an introduction to a poetry collection, "I have felt all my life that I was wise, and tasteful, too, to speak very little about myself — to deflect the curiosity in the personal self that descends upon writers, especially in this country and at this time, from both casual and avid readers."

But her recent collection Thirst (2006), which was written after her partner of 40 years passed away, contains many lines that address her personal experiences of grieving.

Oliver also wrote a lively sequence of poems about their dog, Percy. In "News of Percy (Five)" she writes: "We named him for the poet, who died young, in the blue waters off Italy. / Maybe we should have named him William, since Wordsworth almost never died."

Her books of poems include No Voyage (1963), The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (1972), Twelve Moons (1978), The Leaf and the Cloud (2000), Owls and Other Fantasies (2003), and Red Bird (2008). Her most recent collection, Evidence, came out in April of this year.

She's also written some books of prose, including A Poetry Handbook (1994), Blue Pastures (1995), and Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse (1998).

Mary Oliver wrote: "Every day I walk out into the world / to be dazzled, then to be reflective."

And she wrote:

"My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
            equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
            Keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished."

—from "Messenger" in Thirst (2006), first appeared in Nature and Spirituality

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »