I grew up in Matunga, a suburb in Mumbai. Though there were small pinwheel flower trees and a champa tree in our building compound, rows of coconut palms and a henna tree in the neighbouring one, and a canopy of old trees on the wide streets outside, it was an urban setting. Crows abounded and sparrows chattered away as they foraged for food. Rare sightings of parakeets, or a golden oriole caused much excitement. Pigeons made nests in our balconies. There wasn’t the dread then of catching a disease from their droppings, though my grandmother did grumble about the nuisance they caused. I watched wonderstruck when the babies grew up and the pigeon parents nudged them to fly. These happenings made their way into my essays or my diary.
When I relocated to Pune five years ago, all of a sudden, I was surrounded by a lush, tree-lined landscape. The koel’s call was the morning alarm, and birdsong was a beautiful medley. During the pandemic, when the sun peeped in through the windows or a starling sat on the sill and screeched, it was reason enough to light up. I wrote about these sightings, looked out for hornbills, storks, blackbirds, weaver birds, and trained my ears to remember their calls. The more I engaged my senses, the more I discovered. When things opened up, and I resumed my morning walks, every day I encountered something that left me awestruck, whether it was a pumpkin patch that had sprung up in the middle of a garbage dump with its vibrant yellow flowers or a babbler tending its chick or a pup barking its head off at passing vehicles or a catfight or millipedes moving in a group and taking refuge under a wildflower bush with purple blossoms.
Wherever I looked, nature offered its beauty unabashedly. My heart leaped up much like the poet of nature. I wrote little social media posts about these marvellous encounters, but felt that I kept falling short while recreating my thoughts and feelings on paper. There were those rare times too when the words seemed like the beginning of a poem, but I struggled to follow the image or idea. I knew then that merely reading poetry was not enough. I needed to hone my craft, refamiliarize myself with the nuts and bolts of poetry writing. “It is craft after all, that carries an individual’s ideas to the far edge of familiar territory,” says celebrated Mary Oliver, in the stunning ‘A Poetry Handbook’ which is “about the part of the poem that is a written document, as opposed to the mystical document, which of course the poem is also.” And how does one reach that electrifying far edge? Through emotional freedom, through being with the world, through employing the five senses and building out of the past but with a difference.
Drawing from poems by Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson, Coleridge, Elizabeth Bishop and others, Oliver familiarises you with the process of building a poem, from making chosen sounds by using the correct devices to turning the line, pausing at the right place to creating a visual pattern on the page. From meter and rhyme, to form and diction, to sound and sense, she walks you through the secrets of the craft.
Mary Oliver had a difficult childhood. She often retreated to the woods near her home. Here she walked and observed and wrote poetry, and was in deep communion with nature. She paid close attention to the world around her, whether it was a hundred-year oak or a hungry bear or a nesting turtle. In ‘Upstream’, a collection of pensive, spiritual essays, Oliver reflects on the beauty and mysteries of the natural world, as also on love, time, death, on an injured seagull, on reeds that are a bearded green flocculence, full of splinters of light, on hunger, on aquatic life, and on building a house, among other vitalising things. She writes about the literary masters who have served as her mentors—Whitman, Poe, Emerson, Wordsworth. She meditates on the forces that allowed her to create a life for herself.
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Throughout you sense the poet’s amazement as she positions herself upstream and invites us to follow suit, to move, to notice, to be kind, to open our eyes and lose ourselves in the awe of the unknown. She assures us through her beloved poem, ‘Wild Geese’,
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople. The views expressed are the author’s own.