Connections: Divers

When I asked my friend Rebecca-Ellen to pick a poem for National Poetry Month, she picked a poem by Mary Oliver, and I remembered that earlier in the year she’d recommended another of Oliver’s books to me, a collection of lyrical essays titled Blue Pastures. (Incidentally, in relation to my forthcoming posts on literary awards and prizes, the cover of Blue Pastures notes that Oliver is a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.)

In one of the final essays, “The Poet’s Voice,” Oliver writes poetry is written from a “dark and lustrous place,” a place that is neither “casual” nor “ordinary,” a place that Jung refers to as the collective unconscious. Oliver writes that the poet is like a diver, who “must wear a mask to live” and that “in such a mask, the writer goes down, into the ocean, under its luminous tonnage, and through, and out from the levels of the person life.”

If the writer is like a diver, then “whatever the diver takes with him—and the diver without equipment is soon a drowned diver–is of immeasurable importance.” The writer, like the diver, has tools, and not only tools essential to their trade, but essential to life—as essential to life as oxygen.

This metaphor of writer as diver reminded me of a collection of poems by another awarding-winning (and more famously, award-refusing) woman poet Adrienne Rich titled Diving into the Wreck. The title poem begins

First having read the book of myths,
and loader the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
Rich’s poem is also a metaphor for poetry–for the act of writing poetry, and the experience of being a poetry. Interesting, that two of the greatest contemporary ¬†American female poets both chose this metaphor to express their understanding of their art, and both expressed it with such similar language, albeit one in poetry and one in prose. Rich describes “the book of myths,” the camera, the knife, the diving suit, flippers, and the “grave and awkward mask,” and Oliver writes of the writer’s tools: “a modest attitude, technical adroitness, language skills altogether,” and most importantly, “an abiding and previously thought-out sense of what a poem is, of what its purpose is.”
Rich, again:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.

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