Sleeping in the Forest: my love affair with poetry, part 2

One of the first contemporary poems I loved was Sleeping in the Forest, by Mary Oliver.

To adequately love a poem, you must prepare its dwelling place; memorize it. Revisit it frequently.

  • When I found the poem (late 1980’s):

Reading that poem (which is under copyright and not legally available online) felt like meditation to me.
It felt like my life.
I liked that the poem veered toward hope. My thoughts didn’t merely rise, they “floated, light as moths / among the branches of the perfect trees” and I didn’t merely grapple with darkness, it was “a luminous doom.”
I could have hummed the word luminous all night, so that “by morning / I had vanished at least a dozen times.”
This poem embraced darkness and yet it chased away my fears of the unknown. I began to see adventure in being moth-like, floating near “the white fire of the stars.”  I welcomed the poem’s strange sleep in the forest that offered no rest but instead consisted of work–of rising, falling and grappling “all night.”
I didn’t think about the poem, despite its emphasis on thought. I loved the poem the way a small child loves the one who comforts her, simply, without question, with physical emotion.

  • Now:

I notice line breaks and meter, wondering why the poet cuts the last line down to three feet and changes the meter from iambic to trochaic.
And I wonder whether that empty space at the end of the last line implies the work of grappling, vanishing, and awakening always remains unfinished? Is it like the incomplete measure at the end of a song, harkening back to the beginning for its resolution?
The poem begins with the words, “I thought.” 
It must allude to Descarte.
I notice that the poem is almost a sonnet–fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Line fourteen reads:
“I had vanished at least a dozen times”
It might have ended there. Instead, Oliver completes a transformation-narrative with this sparkling addendum–
“into something better.”
These days I am attuned to the sound, the internal music of the poem in every one of its finely-crafted lines. Listen:
“All night I heard the small kingdoms / breathing around me, the insects, / and the birds who do their work in the darkness.”
The consonants rustle and hum, the vowels breathe.
Now when I read poems, I primarily notice the skill required to craft them.
While this used to be a poem that reminded me of my life, everything has changed. Sleeping in the forest and grappling with doom seems a ridiculously uncomfortable way to spend the night. Give me a cushy B&B near the sea.
But I still read poetry mostly in the evening, often right before bed. And while I used to read poetry largely for the emotional content of a poem, now I read poetry for its mysterious music, the experience of what poet Alice B. Fogel calls Strange Terrain.
What do you read after darkness descends, and why?

18 thoughts on “Sleeping in the Forest: my love affair with poetry, part 2”

    1. Thanks for the link, Judy. I can’t say for sure, either, whether this version is legally published, but I think not. I can’t imagine Mary would have allowed her poem to be published with the margins all lined up along the left. In her book, the lines are all centered, which gives it a “rising and falling” look on the page.
      I don’t know her personally, but one of my mentors, Patricia Fargnoli does know her, and Patricia says that Mary is very precise–she has a definite, unchangeable reason for every decision she makes in a poem, every word choice, line break, capital letter–and whether the poem lines are justified left, right, centered, or indented.

  1. One of the first poems I ever loved was Cargoes by John Masefield – it seemed so exotic and I didn’t really know what it all meant but the sound of those words and the rhythms they produced were mesmerising.

    1. I wasn’t familiar with this poem, Jenny. And Masefield was definitely not in favor with the American poetry gurus of the late 20th-century. No one recommended I read him. But I’m going to find more of his work. I’m one of those hopeless romantics who actually likes the Romantics and Victorians, and his style in this poem leans toward pre-modern (although he was writing at the time of T.S. Eliot–very interesting!)

  2. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I googled “Sleeping In The Forest,” and it’s a wonderful poem. Listening to the kingdoms–that evokes the worlds of poetry I’ve always wished I could write. Another excellent post, Tracy. Thank you.

    1. It’s always great to hear from you, Marylin. And I googled it too. And I read a number of sites that had it posted, but I didn’t find any that were formatted correctly–with centered lines instead of left-justified, which made me suspicious. I didn’t want to link to anything that might be a copyright infringement, even though I know there’s a ton of that going on and I don’t think there’s much that can be done about it.

    1. I went years and years without consciously thinking about the musicality, the sound, of poetry. I just enjoyed it.
      I’m not convinced that “knowing” all the nuances of the parts, makes for a deeper enjoyment of the experience. Sometimes I feel like it does; sometimes I’m convinced I delighted in poetry more, before analysis before I was handed a toolbox for dissecting poems through analysis. But, just as in life, I can’t change what happened to me or the decisions I made to participate in activities that forever altered my perceptions and feelings.

  3. “I thought the earth remembered me” stopped my breath. What an extraordinary wording for the sense of belonging to the earth that I feel when I allow myself to acknowledge my physicality, my place in the great weaving of Life. Thanks, Tracy, this is a poem I’m going to memorize!

    1. Centering the lines doesn’t change anything but the look on the page, which gives it a very subtle, practically subliminal sense of movement. Something only the poet would notice, I think, or someone with a visual memory who has memorized the poem… and yes, the poem is still beautiful even in its changed form.

  4. It’s usually history that I read after dark: biographies, autobiographies, straight out historical books. There is just something comforting in lives lived (however horribly or wonderfully) before us when darkness descends…

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