>Celebrating National Poetry Month: Mary Oliver’s Journey and Scott Cairn’s Idiot Psalms

>National Poetry Month (April) is almost half gone and I haven’t blogged about it yet. I think it’s because I feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of material from which to draw my reflections.

First (of course) there’s Oprah, dedicating 36 pages of the April issue of O Magazine to poetry, quoting the poet Mark Nepo as saying, “For me, poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul. It is where the soul touches the everyday. It is less about words and more about awakening the sense of aliveness we carry within us from birth….” (from Oprah’s column, “What I Know For Sure” about poetry)

And then she features an interview by guest editor, Maria Shriver, with Pulitzer Prize-winner, Mary Oliver, in which she explores spirituality, and especially how Mary is coming to grips with her troubled childhood, at age 75. My favorite part of the interview was when Shriver asked Oliver, “Why did you first turn to a creative art?” and Oliver answered, “Well, I think because with words, I could build a world I could live in. I had a very dysfunctional family, and a very hard childhood. So I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.” In this interview, Oliver went public for the first time with the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.

The interview includes Oliver’s famous poem, “The Journey,” which has been pivotal in my own life. My best friend, Daphne, introduced me to Oliver a few years ago, giving me my first book of her poetry, and opening my eyes to another way of looking at the world and my own life.

And then another unexpected blessing came my way. My friend, the Orthodox poet, essayist, and creative writing teacher, Scott Cairns, was invited to speak in Oxford again this past weekend, and two more of my dearest friends, Deb and Sarah, make the trek with me to hear him. Scott was hosted by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, but his presentations began at Off Square Books on Saturday afternoon, where he read from several of his volumes of poetry and chaired a lively dialogue with his guests. (Read about my first meeting with Scott back in November of 2009, when I participated in a spiritual writing workshop he led in Oxford. That post actually goes into much more detail about his poetry and other writing.)

One of the poems Scott read Saturday night was “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous It was such a joy to hear the words in the poet’s own physical voice. (The nous, according to Scott, is “where the whole person is gathered.” It’s also been compared to “the mind descending into the heart.”)

When asked about future poetry projects, Scott said he was working on a collection he calls Idiot Psalms. A sample, published in Poetry Magazine, includes these words from Idiot Psalms 2, “A Psalm of Isaak, accompanied by baying hounds”:

Make me to awaken daily with a willingness
to roll out readily, accompanied
by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,
the idiot’s undying expectation,
despite the evidence.

I thought about that giddy joy when I awoke this morning. My husband brought me my coffee in bed when he heard my alarm go off (yes, he does this every morning) and as I sipped I read from Scott’s essay, The End of Suffering, which Publisher’s Weekly included in their Top 100 Books of 2009; it was in the top 10 for their religion category.) I had just told my husband how thankful I am that my broken ankle is healing so quickly, and I was quietly reflecting on lessons I’m learning through this very tiny bit of “suffering” that has come my way. As Scott says in his chapter, “Waking Up”:

“Our afflictions drag us—more or less kicking—into a fresh and vivid awareness that we are not in control of our circumstances, that we are not quite whole, that our days are salted with affliction…. If we take care to acknowledge these truths, and are canny enough to attend to them, faithful enough to lean into them then the particular ache of that waking can initiate a response that the Greeks were wont to call kenosis—an emptying, an efficacious hollowing…. having transformed our painful, kenotic emptying into a means to a desirable end.”

I finished my coffee with a grateful smirk and a nod to the power of poetry, and greeted the day with the idiot’s undying expectation… despite the evidence.

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