Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Mary Oliver Fan Club

I went to hear Mary Oliver read her poetry last night. I’m happy to report that she seems as delightful as a person as she is accomplished as a poet. This isn’t always the case. People who can melt your heart practicing their art form sometimes are people you’d walk far away from a party— Keith Jarrett, for example. But Ms. Oliver was so fun— warm, witty, making us at ease as she fumbled through her notes and publicly confessed her lifelong losing battle with organization, rounding out her prolific love notes to the universe with her righteous indignation with American politics and the horrors of what we’re doing to the natural world, our children and each other. In short, a fully human human being stuck in the muck with the rest of us while keeping her gaze constant on the stars—and the bugs and the birds and the trees and especially, her beloved dogs named Percy.

When it came time for questions, at least three people announced themselves as being “huge fans,” one even letting the packed theater know that some lines of Ms. Oliver’s poetry were tattooed on her body. Naturally, we all wanted to know which lines and more importantly, where on her body? Ms. Oliver’s response? “What color?”

But it got me thinking of this notion of being a “fan.” How long has the notion of fan clubs been around? Google wasn’t a lot of help, but it seemed clear that it began with the movie industry and modern communication. The purpose is for adoring worshippers of celebrities to keep updated on their star’s life, share with fellow fans and occasionally make some kind of contact with the star him or herself. The first fan club I knew was the Mickey Mouse Fan Club—must have been tricky to communicate with Mickey.

The key words here are “adore” and “worship.” The star is in some exalted stratosphere unreachable by us air-breathing mammals and we will build our identity partly from who we choose to adore. Mostly we focus on actors and musicians, but the roots of the mentality go back much further. As one Internet entry put it, on some level, the entire Christian religion can be thought of as a 2,000 year old fan club. And when we remember the Beatles churches and teenage girl altars and John Lennon's quip that they were more popular than Jesus, you can see the connection.

I’m uncomfortable with the notion of adoring. Appreciating, yes, admiring, yes, inspired by, yes, but worshipping and adoring creates a hierarchy that has never felt healthy to me. I’m sure I was attracted to Buddhism by the saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Meaning don’t get trapped or sidetracked by adoring Buddha and instead, focus on your own Buddha-nature. That’s what Buddha himself advises. Of course, we do bow to Buddha and pay our respects, but more as fellow-seekers than as members of the Buddha fan club.

I am perpetually grateful when an artist has taken the trouble to express what I feel, but can’t say as eloquently due to lack of time, talent or inclination. But coming home from a good concert, poetry reading, Orff workshop, what have you, I’m mostly inspired to work harder to say what I can in whatever medium I can more eloquently and in only the way that I can say it. I’ve loved reciting Mary Oliver’s poems and playing snippets of great jazz artist’s solos, but always as a springboard to form more clearly my own way of experiencing and expressing the world. Too much admiration of those who have gone down the road before us becomes a distraction.

But we Americans love our celebrities. We love to get the vicarious thrill of worshipping the sports figures, the movie stars, the rock musicians and neglect our own potential, equating success with media attention and setting the bar so high that we don’t even make the effort to get off the ground—just buy the ticket and join the club. It was disconcerting to feel that mentality leak into the world of readers of poetry—witness the Mary Oliver “Fan Club.”

Ms. Oliver herself is very clear that the creative mind is constantly bubbling and only waiting for us to make a date with it and keep it. If we do, she reports, it will always show up. And that's exactly what she's done. Every day, she wakes early and walks in the woods with a little notebook and a pencil, noticing the world and trying to catch some of the mystery in the net of language. Then she goes home and works for two or three hours on refining it, scraping away the excess. She once wrote: “It takes about 70 hours to drag a poem into the light.” 

In short, she is not a celebrity, simply someone dedicated to her work, willing to do it and willing to share it and that indeed deserves admiration, but not adoration. Putting her on the pedestal excuses us from doing our own work. In a poem titled “Instructions for Living a Life,” Ms. Oliver counsels us so succinctly as to how to do that work:

          “Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

That’s what she has done for some 50 years and we are all the richer for it. 

Now I wonder where I can tattoo that? 

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