Early in my life I determined not to teach because I like teaching very much. I thought if I was going to be a real poet – that is, write the best poetry I possibly could – I would have to guard my time and energy for its production, and thus I should not, as a daily occupation, do anything else that was interesting. Of necessity I worked for many years at many occupations. None of them, in keeping with my promise, was interesting.
Among the things I learned in those years were two of special interest to poets. First, that one can rise early in the morning and have time to write (or, even, to take a walk and then write) before the world’s work schedule begins. Also, that one can live simply and honorably on just about enough money to keep a chicken alive. And do so cheerfully.
This I have always known – that if I did not live my life immersed in the one activity which suits me, and which also, to tell the truth, keeps me utterly happy and intrigued, I would come some day to bitter and mortal regret.
– Mary Oliver, “Conclusion,” A POETRY HANDBOOK (Great October Reread of 2008, 1/90)
Having unpacked the ninety books I own, I have been rereading them, one at a time. I think I will make this a yearly tradition if I can, to at least open if not completely reread every book I own, and to quote from it on this blog. If I cannot find anything worth quoting or commenting on, or don’t care about the book enough, I will get rid of it. To this end, this post begins a new category, the Great October Reread. For my own facetiousness I will also note that I am not blogging about these books in the exact order of rereadership. I devoured ON BEAUTY first, and dipped into the Norton, and was browsing through CODEPENDENT NO MORE before I got to this one.
My mother gave me A POETRY HANDBOOK when I was in high school, and those words – particularly the “bitter and mortal regret” – have rung in my ears since then. I did not realize until now, on this reread, how seriously I have taken Oliver’s admonition to avoid interesting work – and how strangely guilty I feel for the interesting occupations I have pursued, such as directing, for diverting my energy from my truer, older calling. However, since she ultimately did become a teacher, I think I may safely say that I aspire to do the same, and sooner than her, without damage to the poetry.
I also think that it is safe, even necessary, to have interesting occupations as a writer, as long as they do not become preoccupations which prepossess the poetics. That will always be a danger, but for someone as desperately determined to write as Oliver was and is, it cannot be greatly feared. (I have been watching too much PRIDE AND PREJUDICE – I sound like plaigarized Austen. “Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride – where there is real superiority of mind…”)
We are all in danger from many things, Dara, Darcy, and every prideful person and poet on the planet. But let’s (and by us I mean me) not be in danger of letting the fear of that danger drive us to doing nothing.