Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Arrangement of Words

In English class, when I was young, I learned to diagram sentences. A rudimentary activity, and not one known to coax magic out from the fibers of the page. More akin to the study of skeletons, for one sees how the bones connect all the while acutely aware that no breath of feeling is present. But just as the fibia gives us what we need to run through a meadow, and the humerus provides us the strength required to paint the Mona Lisa or to lift a giggling baby in the air, the arrangement of letters and words, sentence and verse, gives us the ability to see beneath the surface of our lives - to uncover, and communicate, truth.

How wondrous is language. And how wonderful to encounter those who use it well. Who among us has not read a passage in a book so beautifully written, so compelling, that we read it over and over, perhaps even copying it down to squirrel away for future reference? Who has not heard a speech from an orator so inspiring, so enlightening, that we have been moved to take a stand for something in which we truly believe, rather than remain encased in our timidity? Or conversely, who among us has not read a book, or heard a speech, so dreadfully written, with words galumphing along to such a calamitous finish that they invite groans of frustration.
Yes, the arrangement of words is a powerful thing.

The older I get, the more I love poetry. True poets communicate in feelings. Their well-arranged words allow me to actually
feel what is on the page; all my senses are in play. Their verse can brush my face with a warm sea breeze, or sting me with an icy needled blast. I can see the pathway through the forest, smell the damp blackness of the mysterious earth, hear the papered leaves crackle under my feet as I walk.
I touch the mane of a lion, I hear the call of a loon. I taste the bright red plum.
A poet’s words may enter through the brain, but they speak to the soul, invoking a recognition of one’s true self that is often impossible to articulate. “What does that poem mean?”, we are asked. How does one explain what the heart understands.

Today is the birthday of my favourite poet, Mary Oliver. Her poems speak to me like no others. The words she employs are simple ones, but in her hands, their arrangement is profound. I wish her a most happy day.

Painting above by Alan Banks

A Dream of Trees

There is a thing in me that dreamed of trees,

A quiet house, some green and modest acres
A little way from every troubling town,
A little way from factories, schools, laments.
I would have time, I thought, and time to spare,
With only streams and birds for company.
To build out of my life a few wild stanzas.
And then it came to me, that so was death,
A little way away from everywhere.

There is a thing in me still dreams of trees,
But let it go. Homesick for moderation,
Half the world’s artists shrink or fall away.
If any find solution, let him tell it.
Meanwhile I bend my heart toward lamentation
Where, as the times implore our true involvement,
The blades of every crisis point the way.

I would it were not so, but so it is.
Who ever made music of a mild day?

by Mary Oliver
born September 10th, 1935


  1. I love her poetry, too! Beautiful! And guess what....I started reading "The Little Stranger" today...and so far I can't put it down! It's cloudy and dreary today...perfect! heehee!

  2. I can see why she is a favorite. I look forward to reading more of her work.
    I'm probably more in awe of writers than of any other profession. The more I write, the more I realize I don't know a thing! The challenge to improve is thrilling to me.
    So glad you like the header. I think you know a thing or two about cottages!

  3. Oh I love Mary Oliver. My favourite of her poems is the one that includes the line "you do not have to be good."

    If you ever get a chance, find a copy of Jaan Kaplinski's Wandering Border. He is just suberb.

  4. mary oliver, happy birthday...i'm a fan as well.....and also of your beautiful writng. and, i for one, LOVED the sentence diagrams. like math, but with words in a way. clean. clear. with invitations waiting for added adjectives or prepositional phrases....

  5. Gorgeous, gorgeous poem. I read this entire post nodding my head. You know what I mean? That "yes" of assent, of recognition.

    I remember diagramming sentences. Isn't it funny how we all have the same bones, but we do such different things with them?

  6. It is such a beautiful poem, and now I must find out more. You have given me another branch on my journey to discover, Thank you. Suzie. xxx

  7. I smile at your words ----> But just as the fibia gives us what we need to run through a meadow, and the humerus provides us the strength required to paint the Mona Lisa or to lift a giggling baby in the air, the arrangement of letters and words, sentence and verse, gives us the ablility to see beneath the surface of our lives - to uncover, and communicate, truth.

  8. Beautiful poem Pamela and many thanks for sharing.
    I have never heard of Mary Oliver and look forward to reading more of her work.



  9. Geez, Pamela, that first paragraph is a masterful bit of poetry.

  10. One of my favorites too...thanks for sharing the poem and that it's her birthday...I'll send a wish her way...

  11. Beautiful poem Pamela - 'whoever made music of a mild day'.

    It seems to me that you also have a wonderful talent for 'putting words together'.

  12. Yummy! Mary Oliver words. Got to see her read a couple years ago. It was as wonderful as you can imagine!

  13. you point is well taken and I agree - I don't know much poetry or poets, but I do love mary Oliver. She goes very quickly to the center of things :)

  14. Well,I have no words..simply beautiful..

  15. Inspirational Pamela. Such beauty.
    You words move me as always.

  16. A wonderful poem to share on this day of celebration. Have a golden weekend my friend! xoxo

  17. Hello P&E,

    You certainly know how to arrange words on the page. I enjoyed reading them every bit as much as the poem.

  18. I, too, learned to diagram sentences by an English teacher/drafting instructor. What a horrid combo! Such precision with my friends, the words. It seem such a painful thing to do them with slanting lines, subjects chopped off from verbs, prepositions placed where they should be so and their modifiers hanging on for dear life.

    Poetry is to writing as glace de viande is to beef stock. All is boiled away until only essence remains. Time and patience. Skill and skimming. Work and art. Thank you for your words.

  19. It is a wonderful poem!
    Thank you for sharing it!


  20. The wonder of words in perfect formation....

  21. I enjoyed your words on language even though I was not a fan of sentence diagramming back in school. Grammar is indeed a powerful tool, especially when used correctly. You are so right about motivational orators.

    I appreciate the time you obviously put into choosing the words for your blog posts and comments. You are a skilled wordsmith.

    Happy Birthday, Mary Oliver! Interesting and moving poem –so true. Thanks for sharing it.

  22. I think your words are as beautiful as Mary Oliver's - thank you for sharing both -

  23. You have such a lovely way with words Pamela.

  24. Two things. One I loved, loved diagramming sentences. Two I just today bought Mary Oliver's cd - At Blackwater Pond and her book, Thirst. And I do believe there is music in a mild day. And I happily live that dream in the first stanza. Dull to others, maybe. But heaven to me. I don't like too much commotion.

  25. You are so eloquent - I only wish I could "put words together" like you!

  26. You are so right, yet we treat language poorly and we teach it somtimes in boring mundane ways, yet the power that is held by all of those words is unequalled to any other sense. I truly wish we all spoke the same language i feel there may be less misunderstanding.... Your poem... well sooooo very beautiful.
    Hugs Lynn xxx

  27. I just discovered your blog today, it's wonderful! The best part is the fitting that it should be Edward's house. My spirited cat Winnie is benevolent enough to allow us to live here, so I understand.
    Beautiful, beautiful poem.
    Have a great weekend,
    ~ Anne

  28. Thank you for the well written and thoughtful essay. Unfortunately, half-way through your first paragraph I began diagramming each sentence in my mind. I am still do that with the sentences I am now writing. It has been about forty-five years since I have diagrammed a sentence and I am finding it rather enjoyable.

    AS one who work has revolved around the use of words, I appreciate the numerous ways that language can be used to communicate. Like you, I have grown fond of poetry and poets. Sitting here and reflecting on my appreciate I remembered a humorous little ditty written by Yip Harburg:

    I'm not afraid of atom bombs, said Kruscev
    And they know it,
    I'm not afraid of anything
    Except perhaps a poet

    Blessings, my friends.

  29. Marvelous! Thank you so much. I adore Mary Oliver, though I have not actually read much of her.

    I always enjoy your writing so much. And Mr. Edward. What a dear doggie.


  30. Mary Oliver shares the same birthday as my dad, 96 this birthday.

    Your blog is a good example of words beautifully arranged, I am sure you were top of the class in English.

    I shall go and find more Mary Oliver.

  31. She is a wonder, and I think no one will ever approach her.

    You told this well, I always appreciate how you arrange your words.

    What poet said yes he had worked on his poem all afternoon: he added one semicolon.

  32. I've also noticed the older I get the more I appreciate poetry though there was a time in my youth when I was passionate for poetry. My english lit. teacher soon put paid to that for a few decades.

    A belated happy birthday to Mary Oliver! I do enjoy her poetry!

  33. Pamela, your words are delightful and I always enjoy reading them. YOUR arrangement of the language in your first paragraph is like true poetry...just lovely. Would you believe that I was one of those students who drew such pleasure from diagramming sentences? Ha! I fell in love with language under the direction of a truly amazing high school English teacher, and I later majored in English in college. I knew from the beginning that is what I would do. Thank you so much for the beautiful poetry of Mary Oliver. And now I am off to make music and poetry of my day. Blessings, and my regards to Edward...

  34. How amazing that I stumbled upon your blog today. I happened to click on a link over at Milkmoon, and suddenly I was here, reading your words, and nodding along. I, too, am a huge Mary Oliver fan. I love her prose as well. In fact, I count Blue Pastures among my favorite books. As a New Englander and a college poetry instructor, I find myself teaching her often, and few poets give me (or the students!) so much joy in the classroom.

    I, too, was taught the now nearly lost skill of diagramming sentences. Oh, how I wish my students knew grammar. To understand how to build a sentence, how to play with language, meaning, sound, and structure is a deeply satisfying and empowering thing, indeed.

    I'm looking out at grey, stormy ocean waves as I type this. I spent my morning collecting sea glass and my afternoon reading a book. As Mary Oliver says in Blue Pastures, "Today I am entirely without ambition. Where did I get such wisdom?"

    So glad I found you.


  35. Oooh - had never heard of Mary Oliver until now - thank you for the introduction. I think your posts are incredibly poetic; so concise, and yet so all enveloping. I can see how much you enjoy language.

    Another fascinating blog, Pamela.

  36. I have found a kind hearted big dog lover again in blog land. You may enjoy my blog and my precious Sadie Mae dog. I am Jacqueline from Once Upon a Fairyland, my childhood home. Friend of Lavender Dreamers...

  37. Words can touch us more potently than anything else. We appreciate those who can reach us so, reach parts of us we didn't know we had.

  38. I had not heard of Mary Oliver. Thank you for introducing me to her.


  39. Lovely poem and thank you for sharing the work by Mary Oliver. I have never heard of her before!
    I enjoy having a cup of tea and having a quiet moment, reading your posts...Wonderful as always.

  40. So beautifully stated Pamela...the wonder of words, xv.

  41. I always love the way poets bend language to their will.

  42. Thank you for sharing your favourite poet, Pamela. I now have another wise voice to explore and enjoy.

    Beautiful words, peace, xxx.

  43. Incredibly well put and Ms. Oliver's poem reaches into your soul. YOU my friend have such a talent with words.

    My best to you for a lovely Sunday. Hugs to Edward ~ xx deb

  44. How true..the older I get, the more I return to poetry...Paz, Valerie, Cummings, Yeats, Byron..

  45. Well. You have no idea. This year for her 88th birthday, I gave my mother a book of Mary Oliver poetry, in hopes that we might have something in common.
    And to Mary Oliver's credit, I think we do.

  46. I knew you were a kindred spirit...she is probably my favorite living poet too...I have always thought that because we are of a similar age and from a similar area that she speaks the words for me that I can't express...

    It's funny too that I was just thinking about diagramming sentences and had just been looking at the Harbrace College Handbook that has been in my bookcase since my college days...If only I had been able to learn how to write as exquisitely as you...

  47. Lovely lovely thoughts on words. When used well, they are some of the best things there are. And the opposite is also true as you have so aptly pointed out (more than once I have thrown a manuscript across the room that I was supposed to be illustrating because it was so poorly written (IMO). SO not inspiring...)

  48. I really love Mary Oliver's poetry, it seems to sing out into my very soul and say all the things I want to say and feel!
    What is diagramming sentences? We don't have that in our English schools.. unless that it's the same as 'parsing' the sentences? Which is breaking down, into the verb,adverb, adjective and nouns, is that the same?


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