Poetry Friday: In Which I Ask Poet Mary Oliver My Pressing Question

"How can a poet serve the poor and powerless?" I asked.

"Man does not live by bread alone," answered Mary Oliver, one of my favorite living poets. She hesitated, then: "These days, different voices are speaking of their own cultures in poetry, and comfort is given by listening to them."

Lest you think we were having coffee somewhere on the Cape, just the two of us, let me set the scene: a packed chapel on the Wellesley campus, stuffed with Oliver fans (who tend to be mainly white, silver-haired, upper-middle-class women).

After reading a few of her poems, Ms. Oliver was taking a few questions written on cards by members of the audience. Mine was one, and I'm grateful it was presented because it's one of my struggles as a writer—the time taken in solitude, crafting words and stories, is time that could be given in service to the poor or spent fighting for justice.

Any answers or thoughts from my fire escape visitors? As you mull over the question, here are some other quotes from Mary Oliver, scribbled in my journal at the event:
Flipping through a stack of books to find a poem: "I should have one of those iPads—I've seen them."

On disciplined appointments of writing: "If you're having a romance with someone and don't show up ..."

Q. What is your place in the world? "A beast given the gift of imagination."

Q. What do you do when you cannot write? "Walk."

Q. What's your favorite word? "Adjectives are worth nickels. Verbs are worth fifty cents."

Telling a story about Flaubert and work, who skipped a weekend of play with his friends to write: "'Was it worth it?' his friends asked upon returning. 'Oh, yes,' answered Flaubert. 'On Saturday I took out a semi-colon. And on Sunday, I put it back.'"


rilla jaggia said…
"They also serve who only stand and wait," and write about people and issues dear to their hearts so that others who are better at doing than writing can be inspired into action.

"The pen is mightier than the sword." Hah! How's that for quotes...trotted out the only two I know, just for you. :)

Great post, Mitali. You hit on an issue I struggle with, too. All the time.
Adriana said…
An excellent question, and an excellent answer from Mary!

I admire your constant search for ways to help others! We could always do more to help. You're right, sometimes the things we choose to do with our time are just indulgences we allow ourselves, but it's good to remember every now and then that before we can help others, we have to help ourselves first. And that's where poetry (and all writing, really) comes in.

Writing helps the writer. Most people write because they can't imagine NOT writing. They HAVE TO write.

But it can help the reader too, in many ways: by offering words of comfort in times of hardship; or by offering a better, safer place to escape to, even if it's only temporary and only in the reader's imagination; or by offering knowledge; or by giving the reader a chance to relate to others and thus teaching them compassion (among other valuable things).

Thank you for this great post! I loved the quotes from Mary :) She's incredible.
Thank you for getting that question in and reporting to us. It must have been a wonderful session with Mary Oliver. She has such wisdom and grace. And you - you serve us all by continually asking these questions and bringing forward your own passion for justice and mercy. There are many ways to be poor. Every gift is given for service.
Namrah Mahmood said…
Hello All!

Your question, Mitali, was very striking and compelled me to give my view-point on it.
Arts (writing or any other form) is a 'Sacred lie' we speak in order to help the whole Universe to understand itself (including our own Soul which is always in a quest to understand itself).

Even a single word of wisdom is powerful enough to bring the Heavens closer, for those who are kind-hearted and lovable people living on Earth.

(Its the first time I am visitng ur blog and found it very interesting. Stay blessed)