The Actors Centre

Earthly delight

10 July 2015

Your very own moment of earthly delight

A good friend recently gave me a book of poems by Mary Oliver, a contemporary American poet. As I started reading, I realised that in fact I had come across a few of her poems in anthologies and liked each one when I'd read it, but I hadn't particularly registered her name. So it was an unexpected pleasure to find somebody whose particular way of seeing the world, and of talking about it, I really loved.

What really struck me in this selection, though, was a short prose piece talking about the process of writing a poem. In our Poetry in Performance meetings at the Actors Centre, I often find myself wondering what a poet imagined as she or he was writing, what sort of performance, if any, they had in their mind for their poems; and whether we are able - or need - to match those expectations.

So I thought I'd share a bit of it:

“I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered. I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader's part in an implicit author-reader pact. Last but not least, I want the poem to have a pulse, a breathiness, some moment of earthly delight.”

I like her reminder that poetry has a kind of mystery to it; and that a poem is not really complete – well, a good poem isn't complete, I think – unless you, the haphazard reader, have to try it out in your mouth, to see how it tastes. But there's much more going on than just the sound of the poem: she points to the way a good piece of writing makes you both feel and think. She says a poet should “address the reason for taking the reader's good and valuable time – invite the reader to do something beyond merely receiving beauty, and to configure in his or her own mind what that might be. Make sure there is nothing in the poem that would keep the reader from becoming the speaker of the poem. And, that's all.”

So go ahead - why don't you pick up a poem now and have yourself your very own moment of earthly delight?

Jonathan Cullen - Tutor at the Actors Centre