If there is one theme I keep going back to in these Lifesaving Poems posts, it is this: behind every discovery of every single poem in the list there is a person who nudged it forward, often directly, sometimes invisibly, frequently without knowing it, towards me. From friends, fellow poets and teachers, to sitting in a car park waiting for a poetry workshop, or driving to one, I feel the luckiest of people to have had such great mentors.

This is no less true of my discovery, some three or so years ago, of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Now, I realise, as with my discovery of Billy Collins, that I was pretty much the last person I know to come to this particular party. Until I found this marvellous blog post by my old friend Malcolm Doney I had kind of felt Oliver’s searching and tough-delicate poems kind of bouncing off me a little. I am not proud of it; but it is true.

I loved Malcolm’s telling of the story of Russell Brand grilling on Newsnightin the wake of the fallout from his prank call, with Jonathan Ross, to Andrew Sachs. I never saw the programme in question but feel as though I have. Brand stated that there are two Russell Brands, the one people go to see and hear, expecting something miraculous, and the idiot who makes prank phone calls. He confessed to making the same mistake himself, thinking he was phoning up Manuel from Fawlty Towers, not somebody’s grandfather. He believed in the icon, not the man.

Not least among the pleasures of reading Malcolm’s piece, therefore, was the physical sensation of feeling my preconceived ideas about Brand being turned on their head. From the sound of it, this is what Jeremy Paxman went through as well.

Paxman concluded the programme with this reflection, that there was important terrain for us to explore between “external validation and internal validation”: ‘a matter in essence, of finding yourself, beyond other people’s expectations’ as Malcolm so eloquently put it. At that point Malcolm’s piece stops; he lets Mary Oliver do the talking instead. Her poem is a life lesson I can never learn too often.

The Journey 

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver

Lifesaving Poems

If you liked this post, why not try Rose Cook’s ‘Poem for someone who is juggling her life’ or Denise Levertov’s ‘The Secret’