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Friday, September 10, 2010

The walk . . . and Happy Birthday, Mary Oliver


                      . . . for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

- from Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot


Ever since my poetry teacher told me that she thought Four Quartets was the best, most important poem in the English language, I've intended to read it. One day I found it on the free book table in the big old dark hall outside my office at the university. It was strange, I thought, finding a discarded copy of the best poem in the English language. What English professor would cast it off that way? Oh well, my luck. Maybe they had an extra copy. The tiny black paperback volume sat for years on a small stack of books next to my telephone. Every morning when I listened to voice messages, I looked at the cover. It sat there, like my dad's tiny wooden screwdriver, photographs of my family, and a white piece of the refurbished Pont-neuf. The poem-book was something treasured, not for any personal reason yet, except that someone I thought highly of treasured it. At last, one lunch hour I picked it up and began to read, getting as far as the third page. I stopped reading because of the quote, above, on the second page, and another on the third. These were enough, I thought, for a while. This, my friends, is why I rarely finish books.

Then George posted about the poem Four Quartets, and because I like George and how he walks the world, I found my small black book, which had shifted from the desk next to my work phone to the dresser stack of books at home. I read it through (!). I went back and commented on George's post that I too was hooked. The poem would be a life-long friend.

About the quote, " . . . for the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at . . . ," it's been working in my psyche all this time since first cracking the book open years ago. I was thinking about beauty in our culture, of the cost of it, the extent to which we will go to be looked at and admired. What hadn't occurred to me was that Eliot's little black poem-book had the look of flowers that are looked at, for me anyway. I didn't open it, read it and pull the words into my own flesh and blood, and maybe I wasn't ready. The quote on the third page that also paused me? "Garlic and sapphires in the mud". Catchy, a good title for a blog, I thought. But that line has also haunted my mind. It is the opener of a stanza that is like a free-standing poem in the bigger poem, an opaque passage, with too many words I don't understand. I don't know what Eliot meant by it. But today, after all this time and after reading the poem through now, these two lines together mean something like this to me: The stuff of life is what we walk through, what gets us dirty, what we wear out from frequent use, the things we treasure because we know them so well and soften up with our oily fingers. As Nanao Sakaki said, "Keep your feet muddy."

OK. So then, what? Help me get this from my head to real life. What are sapphires and garlic doing in the mud, and what does it mean to keep your feet muddy? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

* * *

That's where the post was going to end, and I was going to wait a couple of days to post it. After all, I don't post every day! Yikes. Lately it just seems there has been so much wanting to come out. But since writing the above, and then reading LoriKim's beautiful response (What about thorns?) at her blog A Year's Risings with Mary Oliver to a poem by Mary Oliver about roses, and because today is Mary Oliver's birthday, and because she is . . . is in the world, in me, expressing what floods from my heart every moment, I must post this today.
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58 comments:

Susan said...

Goodness, you and I are so much alike. I can't tell you how many books I have that I treat like that. And always think...someday.

Happy Birthday, Mary Oliver!

Bonnie said...

And I am so glad that you did 'post this today'!

Love how Eliot juxtaposes garlic and sapphires together in the mud, and how you have invited us in to share the delight in your discoveries.

*jean* said...

ooo love this! i think garlic was a treasure too! it was used as an antiseptic during WWI, an invaluable medicine throughout the ages-might have been far more revered than it is now, as valuable as a sapphire...maybe it just means to keep looking for the treasures the earth has to offer as you trudge through the worst of trenches...food for thought, as always, served up with gorgeous photographs (and a hint of garlic?)...good morning, ruth...happy friday to you

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this today. You have given me much to ponder and treasure. Comments to follow after time to mull through all the thoughts and connected heart strings. You are a treasure, and keep me on tip-toe reaching for new and re-thinking the old.
~cg

ellen abbott said...

I don't know what the garlic and sapphires in the mud means unless that's where you find them both, but the keeping your feet muddy seemed to resonate with me...to stay grounded, to stay in touch with the earth, to be nourished by it.

Lorenzo said...

I, too, am glad you posted this today. It has also reminded me of the wonderful poem you wrote and posted a couple of months ago on garlic. As for my thoughts on "garlic and sapphires in the mud", it is so very obvious what it means that I dare not answer here.

Only joking, only joking. Who knows what it "means"? It doesn't have to mean anything and can mean whatever it summons to our minds. But before I explore what it summons to me, I will simply try to concentrate on the image, to really see the garlic and sapphires in the mud. That will be enough for today.

By the way, I am glad to hear you have trouble finishing books that serve up such gems as the title quote. I dare say that I have become the world's slowest reader. The more I love a book, the longer it takes me, as I endlessly fill up the margins, the blank pages at the back, and little improvised scrawl pads with scribblings of whatever the words touch off in me. "Creative reading", Emerson called it.

willow said...

The beauty of art is in the eye of the beholder.

All your talk of mud brings to mind this little poem from my childhood.

Mud

Mud is very nice to feel
All squishy-squash between the toes!
I'd rather wade in wiggly mud
Than smell a yellow rose.

Nobody else but the rosebush knows
How nice mud feels
Between the toes.

Polly Chase Boyden

Fragrant Liar said...

Well this is why I don't read much poetry. Some I love, but if it's too abstract (or makes me think too hard), I shrug and move on. Seems to me that sapphires and garlic in the mud were the result of an unfortunate accident (that someone later had to clean up). But I do love the idea of mud. It's so . . . dirty.

Jeanie said...

Diana "Oh" has written about Mary Oliver and I'm just not so familiar with her as I should be. I do find this most interesting and as always, your recommendations are always so spot-on, they just go straight to the top of the list!

Jeanie said...

My verification word was "cards" so I had to post another comment -- I love it when they're real, and since it's Mary Oliver's birthday celebration, perhaps a "card" to her!

California Girl said...

I am reminded of a line from "A League of Their Own". Towards the end of the movie, after younger sister Kit's team has beaten older sister Dottie's team who has always won, Kit is FINALLY happy; signing autographs for young girls, reminding them to

"Get dirty!"

And why not? She's finally found a way to succeed on her own; to enjoy the fruits of her labor; a path to fulfillment.

George said...

This is a wonderful post, Ruth, and thanks for the nice comments about George, whoever that guy is.

I don't pretend to "know" what Eliot meant when he opened the second section of "Burnt Norton" with the words, "garlic and sapphires in the mud," but I will give it a shot. In my view, there are four significant hints at what Eliot means by this phrase. The first is his concern that the garlic and sapphires "clot the bedded axel-tree," which causes me to ask, "What is the axel-tree?" The second is a few lines later when he talks about "the still point of the turning world" being the place where "the dance is." Third, Eliot stresses our need for "the inner freedom from the practical desire, the release from action and suffering," and the "release from the inner and the outer compulsion . . ." Finally, Eliot continues to talk about the need to disentangle ourselves from the past and the future in order to achieve consciousness, which I believe he equates with "the still point of the turning world."

With all of this said, Eliot may be saying that our maddening, worldly indulgences, ranging from earthy garlic to the pretentiousness of sapphires, is obstructing the proper spinning of the earth upon its axis (the bedded axel-tree?). We, in turn, are being tossed about unconsciously in the rapidly spinning, out-of-control world, and the only thing we can hope to achieve is a higher consciousness that relieves us from desires, compulsions, and suffering. Once we have achieved that consciousness, "time is conquered" (the last three words of the second section) and we are happily at one with everything "at the still point," that eternal place where "the dance is."

I may be totally off track, but this is my best take. Here is the genius, however, of Eliot. His words and images have forced you, me, and millions of others to embark upon inquiries about things of ulitmate importance. Isn't that magnificent?

Char said...

to me to keep my feet muddy is to keep it authentic and real - to participate instead of just observing. and in this, you can find treasures.

ds said...

You will laugh at this. I first saw "garlic and sapphires" (sans mud) as the title of a memoir by Ruth Reichl that I gave to my mother-in-law. Later, mostly due to our friend Linda, I read Burnt Norton:"Aha! That's where she got it." But what it means, not a clue...(whereupon she proceeds to examine clues)

Perhaps muddy feet are happy feet, childlike feet, squishy, grounded, living in the moment (mud dries eventually)? Garlic & sapphires are surely adult things; but Eliot starts out with "Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future..." (paging M. Proust!) He's following echoes, disturbing rose petals in the bowl, for "human kind/Cannot bear very much reality."

So maybe that's it--garlic & sapphires & mud have little to do with one another (unless one is dining on garlic while wearing sapphires on a rainy night) & aren't supposed to? He's having fun? Do I bless or curse you for now having to sit down & read this fully... ;)

Mary Oliver is so much more concrete. And yet, we love them both.

Ruth said...

Susie, there is a book by some woman, and I just can't place the name, I'm sorry, and it is about not having to choose. It's OK to graze and find what nurtures our spirits, without being compelled to finish something out of slavish obligation. Don't you think sometimes you get what you need from a book in the first few pages? It's a shame really, though, that there is such a wealth of books on my/our available flat surfaces, just waiting for us to go with our baskets and gather a harvest. We have the next half of our lives to do it in. I'd love to do it on each other's porches.

Ruth said...

Bonnie, I picture a muddy street in New York, St. Louis, London or Paris, where someone has lost their sapphire necklace, and another someone has spilled garlic from her basket. Maybe the mud equalizes us all.

I am driving myself a bit wacky with three posts three days in a row, but why obsess about it, right?

Ruth said...

Oh, Jean, you conjured the muddy trenches of that war, and it's brilliant to think of the medicinal properties of garlic in that setting as precious as precious stones.

Yes, I'm beginning to think that I serve everything here with a hint of garlic and have considered offering it along with coffee and tea.

Ruth said...

Cindy, you are a kind heart to say such things. What a beautiful thing it is to ponder these cloves of sapphires and rocks of garlic that get stored in our hearts and minds, thanks to writers and artists who dove into the water, just as you do in your daily swims.

Ruth said...

Ellen, I feel that too, from Eliot. Roses and sapphires and garlic don't think about whether they will go to heaven, or have an afterlife, or who will govern, or whatall. Coming back to Nature, to the earth, is to get back to our basic essence, by observing and listening, and feeling connected.

Ruth said...

Lorenzo, I am thinking the mud is an equalizer of everything. A woman in 1890 in a fine dress with lace steps into the mud, and she is the same as the beggar woman. But I will have to spend far more time with this poem before I come up with a definitive, pat answer. Just kidding, just kidding. It reminds me of something I heard a journalist say of the Middle East, which may be true of everything. An American journalist spends one week in the Middle East, and he comes home and writes a book. An American journalist spends one month in the Middle East, and he comes home and writes an article. An American journalist spends one year in the Middle East, and he comes home and has nothing to say. That said, it sure is fun to talk about these complex and beautiful layers offered up by such a writer as Eliot.

I'll let you be the slowest reader in the world, that gets me out of that position finally. Fine with me. But I will be a close second.

Ruth said...

willow, I think Miss Polly Chase Boyden is another genius, showing that even roses have their toes in the mud. I'll think of that next time I think of muddy feet!

Ruth said...

Fragrant Liar you are a smart, smart woman. There is no use forcing something that doesn't resonate. I was picturing something just like what you wrote, that one woman spilled her jewels, and another her basket, and they met and became the same, in the mud. I prefer wet sand to mud, but maybe I need to bring out my kid again and get my toes squishy, remind myself where I came from.

Ruth said...

Jeanie, I believe we meet whom we're supposed to meet when we're supposed to. There is no end to what I don't know, and I look forward to the ones I'm going to meet in the days ahead. What I love about M.O. is that she meets and introduces me to the world of Nature in its multitude of personalities and idiosyncracies, and makes me feel that I have everything to learn from them.

Ruth said...

California Girl, what you wrote gets at something I was thinking too, that getting muddy is persevering, in the difficulty and pain, and loss.

Ruth said...

George, you create a beautiful image, and one that I completely relate to. To think of the "bedded axel-tree" as the earth's axis helps me so much in this passage, representing the stillness that is the peace state, the essence we dive into when we want to get centered. I have a little building here at the farm that Don and Peter helped me turn into a studio, we call it l'atelier. It was formerly a chicken coop, and now it is a glorious space that to me, feels like the center of things. I sometimes think of it as the pivot of the universe, and that is something like an axis. I don't paint, or create anything there, but I go and sit, and read, and feel something that I don't feel anywhere else. There are touch-points that help each of us find that stillness, the point at the center of the gyre that doesn't seem to spin.

Ruth said...

Oh, and George, it is magnificent.

Ruth said...

Char, yes. I have been a bystander way too much in my life. I still see myself learning to participate more all the time. It's never too late, I think.

Ruth said...

Oh, now DS, the muddy equalizer is so because it makes us childlike. I like this. And what are children but beings who have not yet been shaped into Society's adult-replicates. Seeing things fresh every morning, with new eyes, uncolored by the habits we've been trained into, this is playing in the mud. There is humility in mud. If a man in an Armani suit falls in the mud, he can laugh and remember when he played in it. The world falls away.

How fun it will be if you read it fully. Hey, we could start a Four Quartets blog, with George and anyone else who wants to join, and take turns posting, then discussing. :D

rauf said...

oh deeah ! never heard of the most important poem in English language Ruth. i have excuses for not knowing though. Knowing and dying and dying without knowing makes no difference. This is the defense of my ignorance.

Oliag said...

Oh my, this discussion is way over my poor head...but it is very fun to read these comments...I will admit that I am clueless as to meaning but that I love the sound of the words. Maybe this is because it is 1AM right now:) I will have to find a copy of the
Four Quartets...

I find Ms Oliver so much more accessible...and love every word I've read by her...Thanks for introducing me to A Year's Risings with Mary Oliver...now I will be reading Oliver and Rumi on a daily basis:)

destinyhu said...

Are those seriously T.S Eliot's untampered words in the link to tristan.icom?

I think I will have to get the book as I am weary of words on the web unless someone who knows can verify.

Those words make very pointed references in key detail as if he knew and understood specific cycles except he doesn't explain the why (just tells what is happening)

There is NO WAY he could have known what he was talking about unless an ancient civilization understood AND recorded it with a very descriptive written language AND Eliot could read it fluently or he was spoken to directly by someone who could read

If I didn't know any better I would call bulloney

If real the dance is just indecision or not understanding or not knowing what to do. Seeing and denying it's existence is to NOT dance. Witnessing and taking action against (whether or not the action taken is in vain due to a poor or failure to understand is irrelevent) Taking action against is also choosing NOT to dance.

Garlic tastes good but does nothin except maybe minor soothing. It would be like taking aspirin to ease your fever as you die from a rampant bacterial infection.

Sapphires: if he means Eucalyptus then it is as worthless as garlic (having maybe slightly more preventative power)

more than likely he is referencing ants or snails

dirt clustit said...

sent it from the wrong profile. BTW my word verification was lanif

Ruth said...

rauf, you are a few years older than me, and I know without a doubt there will be a whole universe of what I do not know when I am 62, more than what I do not know now, because every day I find out more of what I do not know, and also new things are evolving. And please don't forget, Diane Wakoski feels this is the most important poem (I hope I am quoting her right, it's been 15 years since she said that to me), that doesn't make it so. The only thing we lose by not knowing most things is some kind of richness, maybe, if it might have meant something to us. Like eating from a banana leaf, rauf. Until a couple of years ago, I didn't know anyone did that. Now I know, and I store that information in my bank of riches.

Ruth said...

Oliag, please believe me when I say that I'm standing on a stepstool to keep up with George. It reminds me of the 20th Century Novel class I took with Prof. William Johnsen one summer. I felt that I was thinking at the very tippy top of my brain for six weeks. After one reading of Four Quartets I can say that I don't really understand more than a sense of it, and that is mostly thanks to George's illuminations. And I agree with you, that Eliot's language is beautiful, and so it doesn't matter much to me if I understand the opaque passages. It's like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in that way too, which is just so gorgeously written, and I don't care what it's about.

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;


The thing is, for me Four Quartets is worth the effort, because of the connections I feel, in my soul.

And then there is MO. Her poems are accessible, and they help me access the truth inside me that connects me to the world of nature, and of being human in that context. And Rumi also helps me connect with my essence. I'm so happy you have daily Rumi and daily MO now. When I discovered LoriKim's blog, I was thrilled.

Ruth said...

Dusti, I like how you brought the Rumi Dance today into this.

Dance, when you're broken open.
Dance, if you've torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you are perfectly free.


From what I saw of the online poem, the words were accurate. But please do get a copy and see for yourself. You know more than I about the things you've mentioned, and maybe that would be a fun investigation.

As for garlic and eucalyptus (and melaleuca too), I do think they have helpful, if not medicinal, properties.

Have a great weekend, Dusti.

Dave King said...

Interesting post, as evidenced by the wealth of interesting comments it has attracted. I've always thought that the thing about sapphires and garlic being in the mud, was that they are in an inappropriate place, that it has something to do with the sense of dislocation of the world.

Ruth said...

Dave, that's a good take, since this poem came after industrialization, WWI, and the chaos of modernity, and as WWII was broiling into another madness. I appreciate your poet-perspective.

Ruth said...

It is well worth reading T. S. Eliot's banquet speech to the Swedish Academy upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, after this poem was published. His humility and grace are palpable. His reflections on what poetry means for uniting peoples is inspiring. Here is the opening:

When I began to think of what I should say to you this evening, I wished only to express very simply my appreciation of the high honour which the Swedish Academy has thought fit to confer upon me. But to do this adequately proved no simple task: my business is with words, yet the words were beyond my command. Merely to indicate that I was aware of having received the highest international honour that can be bestowed upon a man of letters, would be only to say what everyone knows already. To profess my own unworthiness would be to cast doubt upon the wisdom of the Academy; to praise the Academy might suggest that I, as a literary critic, approved the recognition given to myself as a poet. May I therefore ask that it be taken for granted, that I experienced, on learning of this award to myself, all the normal emotions of exaltation and vanity that any human being might be expected to feel at such a moment, with enjoyment of the flattery, and exasperation at the inconvenience, of being turned overnight into a public figure? Were the Nobel Award similar in kind to any other award, and merely higher in degree, I might still try to find words of appreciation: but since it is different in kind from any other, the expression of one's feelings calls for resources which language cannot supply.

You can read the rest here.

Ruth said...

Maybe, in the end, mud is humility.

Nautankey said...

i am big time jealous over those roses...was trying to get roses last week and roamed all around the city,I could only get ones which looked like they had been electrocuted :)

cathyswatercolors said...

Hi Ruth,I am most certainly a novice at this but my brain goes to the sensory componant. The smell of garlic, the sight of sapphire and the feel of mud.Then, how does that enhance our lives? Of course you could relate it to the rose... I bet i am way, way way off track, just thinking. Great post my friend you are amazing.

Marcie said...

Such a wonderful tribute to Mary Oliver and her poetry. I'm still pondering how it is that both garlic and sapphires might have found themselves in the mud.

*jean* said...

oo i just had to pop in and say your photo on small today was incredible...you have such a precious eye...

Sidney said...

I say, if your knees aren't green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life. ~Bill Watterson

gemma said...

We are made of mud...the stuff of life. Yes it is the equalizer.
Love your writing Ruthie.

shoreacres said...

How can it be that I picked this day to return after such a long absence, and discover not simply an entry, but a continuation of a conversation from long ago?

Now I must go read, and ponder, but I only was so excited to see Mr. Eliot here, and the road opening up again despite the "clotted axle tree" that I had to post first, read second.

But you've been reading and reading, I can tell. The clue? Those "legs of sempiturnal tan"... They're reminders of that "midwinter spring" which is its own season.

Your writing makes me so happy.

Terresa said...

I feel an overwhelming appreciation for this post. So much in it, roses, Oliver and Eliot to name 3 of some of my favorite things in the world...

Sapphires and garlic in the mud symbolize for me, the friendship of two disparate entities, the yin and yang of life, nesting together in the grit of days, What is Life. It is equal parts zest and work, renewing and rest, and I (try to) embrace them both, along with the mud.

PS: Oliver happens to be my favorite poem of all time, since my "discovery" of her back in 1993. She has aged like fine wine, improving over time.

xoxo,
Terresa

Ruth said...

Nautankey, there's something about you looking for roses all over Chennai that conjures an image of a nautankey [street performer] dressed up and painted up asking for roses. And were they for your new wife? So sweet! :D

I'm so happy to see you posting again.

Ruth said...

Cathy, you can't be way off track, I don't think it's possible. But besides that, you give a reading I hadn't considered, but love. Are we not incredible beings, to perceive with these five (or six) senses, to write about it, to read it, to speculate, and as some of us do, like you, to paint it? Ahhhhh. Wondrous life!

Ruth said...

Marcie, I hope the pondering will be a blessing and not a bugaboo. Knowing you, it will bless you through your beautiful self, which comes through in your photographs every. single. day. I don't understand how you do it! But I'm glad you do.

Ruth said...

Hi there, Jean, and thank you so much for coming by to mention the Queen Anne's Lace standing so "Apparent"ly in a meadow of Canada thistle. You and I, we like our purple. That's our bluebird meadow, you know, though I haven't seen one this year back there.

Ruth said...

Sidney! Thank you for that, my street friend. I will never, ever forget the mud of your Philippine National Railway photo series, of people who live along the tracks.

Ruth said...

Gemma, we are made of mud. Yes, of course!

Ruth said...

Linda, how I've missed your thoughtful presence here. As you know, there are too many serendipities and synchronicities in life to ignore them. But maybe like trying to figure out what garlic and sapphires in the mud mean, we ought to let them just be.

I may have been "reading and reading" but what that means to me and what it means to you are, I'm guessing, two utterly unlike things. I read very little in volume, but like Lorenzo, I read and start taking notes, on paper and in my heart. It's fine, I like it this way.

Thank you for your comment, especially that final line, which couldn't make me happier.

XOXO, Linda.

Ruth said...

Terresa, your comment glints and glitters, for me, like sapphire eyes surrounded by gorgeous streams of red hair. You put it beautifully, that the two items are a whole, without which are are out of balance.

You discovered Oliver with your whole life ahead of you to enjoy her. Some have discovered her much later in life, but I think it's never too late. No wonder your poetry is as deep in the gut and broad in the heart as it is, for you must have been shaped by her from the start.

Ruth said...

I just thought of Archibald MacLeish's poem on poems and want to post it here:

Ars Poetica
by Archibald MacLeish


A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit

Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown -

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind -

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs

A poem should be equal to:
Not true

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea -

A poem should not mean
But be

Ginnie said...

The older I get, Ruth, the more often I say "what I don't know won't hurt me." However, when I come to your posts, I'm so often made aware of what it is I don't know and how it inspires me to know. (sigh)

deb said...

just a silence,
and a deep sigh,
and a slight trembling.
to be here,
to be
to know that I can wake every morning to wonder and awe and learning.
thank you for being a part of my now and tomorrows.