Sometimes it takes no more than a moment. You meet a person, see a painting, hear some music or read certain words. Immediately, there is a feeling of recognition, appreciation and even awe. It is simple and instant. It just feels right.
That’s what I experienced when I first read Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Praying’.
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Isn’t it wonderful? With only a few gentle words, Mary Oliver reminds us that poetry can be found in the humblest of things, such as weeds and stones. We don’t always need magnificence for our inspiration, and nor is it always necessary for our writing to impress or compete. Pleasure is often found in simplicity, and the delight of writing is a gift in itself.
As a poet, however, Mary is clever with her use of the homograph “elaborate”. There are different ways of reading this word, either as an adjective or a verb. Each option offers a slight shift in our understanding of the poem. Are we being advised not to make our patched together words too ornate and complicated? Or is the suggestion instead that they do not have to explain or expound? These two interpretations sit in a friendly tension, lending a more nuanced edge to an otherwise modest message.
The last lines are my favourites, with their evocation of writing being a “doorway” to gratitude and to the “silence in which / another voice may speak.” But whose voice is this? Is it our own inner expression, so often suppressed by other sounds and distractions, or could it be something more mysterious than this?
As yoga teaches us, we breathe and are breathed. Perhaps we can also say that we write and are written.
However it may be, this poem is one to which I return again and again, giving thanks and listening quietly for that other voice in the silence.
I hope that you enjoy it too.
What does this poem evoke for you? What do you make of its title, ‘Praying’? Where else in your life do you find both thanks and silence for another voice to speak?