Rewilding the Word #6

A Story

During the years of my formal schooling and up into my 30s, I did not understand why I could not get access to Poetry; why it would not open to me.[1] My parents taught all of us Ganz children to read, and to read all the time, barring access to the TV that we might grow in affection for books. They taught us well, doing that teaching in the most compelling way by themselves reading all the time.
Yet, I could not figure out why Poetry was a locked box to me, the key to which was never placed into my hands. What was such a key?
Even when I and my high school classmates were taught poetry in our English classes, I only encountered poems. My teachers came at them as if they were word-riddles to be solved, whose meaning was elusive. What I came to conclude was that poets sought to be obscure and that their productions required a specific set of tools (a key) to “solve” or to “decipher” their meaning correctly.[2]
Many people I know, perhaps most of the people I know, are afraid of Poetry, who judge that poems are “beyond” them, out of their range of skill to read, let alone to enjoy them.
I wonder if this is true for you.
One day – I recall that it was in the late afternoon – I was doing a Yoga sequence after having returned from a long run. I had sounding from my radio the “Afternoon Edition” of NPR (National Public Radio). A feature that afternoon was an interview with the poet Sharon Olds,[3] who had recently published her collection called The Gold Cell (I just checked: published 12 February 1987 – I was 32-years old). As the segment concluded, the interviewer asked Olds to read one of the poems in that collection. She chose to read the first poem. And there, right then, as I listened, I heard, for the first time, poetry … and not just a poem. I knew that I had been changed, a capacity to hear given me that had not existed up to that moment – the key into my hands. What that “key” is remains to me a mystery. All I know is that before that day I could not hear and after that day I could.
And so it was that Sharon Olds’ book was the first book of poetry that I purchased for myself (other than the ones that we had been required to purchase as students for high school classes). I read the entire collection, feeling grow in me a capacity to hear poetry.
In the following poem, I will attend closely to particular words, so that through the “opening” of the words and how they are placed in the poem, we may together begin to gain access to the poetry of this poem. Such attention to particular words lies at the heart of the practice of our Rewilding the Word essays.
A Text – “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver (1935-2019)[4]
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This[5] grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
A Reading
“Who … Who … Who?”
[6] – By the repetition of this interrogative pronoun at the opening of each of the first three lines, the poet emphasizes her desire to know the Maker more than to know what the Maker made: World, Swan, Black Bear, etc. Current sensibilities suggest that it is smart to ask that the Maker stand forth and reveal Himself when summoned. We humans are fond of interrogating God and expressing our expectations of Him. And her three-fold “Who” suggests that she insists that the Maker reply.
“made … made … made” – Another three-fold repetition. We might have expected the poet to use the word “created” rather than “made” because she is asking (Is she not?) about God, the Creator. (Traditionally, we say that God creates and that human beings make.)[7] But Mary Oliver is a poet, a maker.[8] What interests her is not that something exists in the first place (“created”) but how exactly did the Maker make each marvelous and wondrous thing. To ask how something is made is a quite a different question from asking why it exists. This poet, I think, is interested to know who, but only in order that she might learn HOW the wondrous Maker makes – a poet asking the Poet.
“This” – The most important word in the poem. It marks a definitive shift of attention away from conceptualizations of or about reality and toward a specific example of reality – in this case, a grasshopper. The way to get to the Maker (the Who? Who? Who?) is by concentrating on a particular making: the specificity of a particular grasshopper.
We follow the poet’s attention as it zooms in on this grasshopper, as if taking us with her through a magnifying glass. She marks details about this delicate being. They suggest that she, the grasshopper, has a fully developed, even sophisticated, personality, characterized by gazing and fastidiously[9] washing up her face, a girl with an elegant capacity to “snap open” her wings and to “float” away. We guess that this grasshopper finds us who are watching her less developed, less sophisticated than she. She has a confident self-possession that feels almost dismissive: “Come back when you get enormous and complicated eyes and have learned how to fly. Then we can talk.”
“I do know how to pay attention” – The poet seems reticent[10] to equate paying attention and prayer (to the Maker – the Who). Yet it is one of the most insightful remarks that I have encountered about the nature of prayer. Too much in the general understanding of prayer is about what we are doing in it (techniques, methods, etc.); not nearly enough about what God is doing in the world and about all of us growing in our ability to catch on to the work of God – the divine mission of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the world. Our ability to praise God, to give glory to God, is proportionate to our ability to pay attention to God, perceiving what God is up to.
Yes, liturgically and congregationally we can say or sing words, lots of them, even loudly. Yes, personally we can say our prayers, eloquent words and heartfelt. Yes, we can carefully arrange our bodily posture and get our gestures just right. Yes, we can set a time, daily, to pray and stick to it. But all of that, unless we are careful, can actually blunt not sharpen our perception of what God has done, what God is doing, and what God is likely to do in a circumstance about to reveal itself.
The highest theological point of the Catholic Eucharist (the Mass, the Liturgy, are other names for it) happens when we say, all together and aloud, “Through Him, with Him, and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor are Yours, forever and ever!” Any prayer must finally be about increasing our capacity to notice God, and in noticing Him, to respond to what He is doing (we call it “the Kingdom of God”) with reverence and admiration and availability.
John 5 (NJB): 19 To this Jesus replied:g
In all truth I tell you,
 by himself the Son can do nothing;
 he can do only what he sees the Father doing:
 and whatever the Father does the Son does too.*
20 For the Father loves the Son
and shows him everything he himself does,
and he will show him even greater things than these,
works that will astonish you.* [11]
An Action

When we pay attention to a person (such an interesting expression – “to pay”), whom we judge that we know well – “I do know how to pay attention” – on what aspect of him or her does our focus rest? It seems an odd question. But I do not think that people ever consider what exactly in a person “holds” their attention – his or her face?; the tone and modulation of his or her voice?; a particular way his or her eyes are?; a way he or she holds his or her body?; his or her smell?; a characteristic gesture? Being able to get to that, to what holds our attention, and to wonder about that, is one thing.

But here is the spiritual exercise, the action that I am suggesting here. What if by deliberate choice we redirected our attention to some other “location” in that person? For example, if you have regularly had your attention held by his or her face, then “re-locate” your attention, say, to his or her hands. What if you concentrated your attention on his or her hands, seeing whether over time you began to understand him or her differently. Recall that what held Jesus’ attention when he engaged a person (a tax collector, a leper, a woman, a Roman centurion, etc.) was nearly always (always?) different from what held the attention of everyone else – “Simon, do you see this woman?”.


[1] I am referring here not to how a poem is constructed. By Poetry I mean the experience of Poetry; the effects in the one receiving a poem. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “poetry”: 2.a. - c1395 - Composition in verse or some comparable patterned arrangement of language in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; the art of such a composition. Traditionally associated with explicit formal departure from the patterns of ordinary speech or prose, e.g. in the use of elevated diction, figurative language, and syntactical reordering.
[2] The point of a poem is not to understand it correctly, but to understand it sufficiently. What a particular poem means depends significantly on who is reading the poem and when and in what context.
[3] Sharon Olds was born in 1942, in San Francisco, and educated at Stanford University and Columbia University. Her first book of poems, Satan Says (1980), received the inaugural San Francisco Poetry Center Award. Her second, The Dead and the Living, was both the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1983 and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. She teaches poetry workshops in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University and in the N.Y.U. workshop program at Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York. More recently she was awarded the Walt Whitman Citation for Merit by the New York State Writers Institute of the State University of New York. The citation officially invested her with the title of New York State Poet for 1998-2000.
[4] From her collection House of Light (Beacon Press, 1990). From Vanity Fair magazine (17 January 2019) – “Billy Collins, the United States’ poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, published an anthology called Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools. Collins included “The Summer Day” in the first edition (No. 133), raising a generation of American kids with her meditation on a grasshopper. Or, as Krista Tippett put it to Oliver during a 2015 interview for her On Being podcast, “so many young people, I mean, young and old, have learned that poem by heart. And it has become part of them.””
[5] I added this emphasis – the italics.
[6] The Oxford English Dictionary at “who” – “Used in asking the identity of a person or persons specified, indicated, or understood; what or which person or people. Corresponding to what that is used of things.”
[7] When God creates, we are noticing how things that never existed are suddenly there, made to exist by God’s choice and out of God’s profoundly rich imagination. When humans make things, we mean the way that we use what is already here (what exists) and build or make things out of these already existent things.
[8] The Oxford English Dictionary records the etymology of the noun “poet” – “< ancient Greek ποητής, early variant of ποιητής maker, author, poet.”
[9] The Oxford English Dictionary at “fastidious” - 3.a., ?1555 – Scrupulously or minutely concerned with refinement in matters of taste or propriety; having exacting standards or paying meticulous attention to detail; (now sometimes) spec. very concerned about standards of cleanliness; insistent that things are kept very clean and tidy.
[10] The Oxford English Dictionary at “reticent” – 1.a. – 1825 – Reluctant or disinclined to speak out or express personal thoughts and feelings freely; reserved in speech; given to silence or concealment.
* 8:28–29

* 3:35; 10:17

[11] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Jn 5:19–20.


Trish Moore - January 30th, 2024 at 2:37pm

Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God’s “poiema” created in Christ Jesus—made in His image. As we choose to pay attention to different aspects of the Who, we know Him more fully and know more fully His love for this ‘poiema’ and the poetry of the many other ‘poiema-s’ He had made.

Tyler Burns - February 1st, 2024 at 4:44pm

"Recall that what held Jesus’ attention when he engaged a person (a tax collector, a leper, a woman, a Roman centurion, etc.) was nearly always (always?) different from what held the attention of everyone else – 'Simon, do you see this woman?'"