November 15, 2005

O is for Oliver and Ochs

The final tally was: 3 votes for Mary Oliver, 4 plus an email for Phil Ochs, and 5 for both, which sounds to me like a mandate for both, for some definition of "mandate". (Mostly, in this case, because the votes for each of the two are close.)

So, is for Mary Oliver and Phil Ochs.

Mary Oliver is a poet I keep discovering, forgetting, and rediscovering. All this proves is that my memory has gone to shit, because her poems are certanly not forgettable. Each time I rediscover them, they strike a chord in me and I remember that I'd loved them before. (Also, some websites that list her poetry include a photo, and the thick black glasses she wears are instantly recognizable.) A lot of recent poetry strikes me as deliberate abstruseness simply for a sake of showing off, a sort of "I'm deeper than you" one-upmanship. (I do realize this may show a lack in me, rather than in the poets I've read.) Oliver's poems are like a good novel: layered enough to repay further study, but telling a good story clearly enough to get you hooked on first reading. In the poems of hers I love best, there's always that top note of a clarion call that rings in your blood. In this one, one of her best known, she somehow combines that clarion call from the wild geese with a reassurance that it is OK to be only human - and that we are still part of the thrill of the natural world.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Her poetry is balanced on a fine edge; it tends to be instructive, teaching how to live, while avoiding the didacticism of Pope or the empty urgings to "Live!" that seem to cycle back into fashion every few decades, and she has a deep connection to nature that avoids the sentimentality of the Romantics or their convition that only man is vile:

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

Phil Ochs is best known for his protest songs, like the Draft Dodger Rag or Outside of a Small Circle of Friends. Some, like There But for Fortune are painfully topical still. But Phil was nothing if not prolific both as composer and lyricist, and it's easy to lose track of some of his most beautiful songs becaue there are just so many of them. His appreciation for poetry is evident in his settings of Edgar Allen Poe's The Bells and of Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman (same poem, different setting than Loreena McKennitt's version). In the later, he pulls a neat trick: Noyes' original poem is much longer than most songs now (the folk process has tended to shorten the length of older ballads) and each verse has the same rhythm so there's no chance to vary the tune for a refrain. So what Ochs did to shorten it was simply to omit every other verse. The story the ballad tells doesn't suffer at all from the omission, and the loss of repeated detail makes the poem more evocative.

Ochs' own more poetic works have also tended to be lost. My favorite is one on aging and growing out of childhood, a subject that produced sweet and nostalgic songs in the late 1960s and early 1970s ranging from Kenny Loggins' House at Pooh Corner to Bob Dylan's Dream to Jim Croce's Alabama Rain and A Long Time Ago, not to mention some a little too sickly-sweet like Seasons in the Sun and Those Were the Days, My Friend. But Ochs avoids that pitfall, even while mixing in a little mysticism:

Changes Sit by my side, come as close as the air, Share in a memory of gray; And wander in my words, dream about the pictures That I play of changes.

Green leaves of summer turn red in the fall
To brown and to yellow they fade.
And then they have to die, trapped within
the circle time parade of changes.

Scenes of my young years were warm in my mind,
Visions of shadows that shine.
'Til one day I returned and found they were the
Victims of the vines of changes.

The world's spinning madly, it drifts in the dark
Swings through a hollow of haze,
A race around the stars, a journey through
The universe ablaze with changes.

Moments of magic will glow in the night
All fears of the forest are gone
But when the morning breaks they're swept away by
Golden drops of dawn, of changes.

Passions will part to a strange melody.
As fires will sometimes burn cold.
Like petals in the wind, we're puppets to the silver
strings of souls, of changes.

Your tears will be trembling, now we're somewhere else,
One last cup of wine we will pour
And I'll kiss you one more time, and leave you on
the rolling river shores of changes.

And sometimes he managed to combine a sweet tune and pretty words with his bitter messages, as in Flower Lady and the sadly prophetic No More Songs. I don't know whether he was contemplating his suicide yet when he wrote this:

No More Songs

Hello, hello, hello
Is there anybody home?
I've only called to say
I'm sorry.
The drums are in the dawn,
and all the voices gone.
And it seems that there are no more songs.

Once I knew a girl
She was a flower in a flame
I loved her as the sea sinks/sings(?) sadly
Now the ashes of the dream
Can be found in the magazines.
And it seems that there are no more songs.

Once I knew a sage
who sang upon the stage
He told about the world,
His lover.
A ghost without a name,
Stands ragged in the rain.
And it seems that there are no more songs.

The rebels they were here
They came beside the door
They told me that the moon was bleeding
Then all to my suprise,
They took away my eyes.
And it seems that there are no more songs.

A star is in the sky,
It's time to say goodbye.
A whale is on the beach,
He's dying.
A white flag in my hand,
And a white bone in the sand.
And it seems that there are no more songs.

Hello, hello, hello
Is there anybody home?
I've only called to say
I'm sorry.
The drums are in the dawn,
and all the voices gone.
And it seems that there are no more songs.

It seems that there are no more songs.
It seems that there are no more songs.

By the way, I couldn't do this series without all the sites online paying tribute to the poets I've written about, both the anthologies and the sites attempting to collect all or a sampling of the works of one particular writer. At the end of this series, I'll collect the links and post a bibliography.

Posted by dichroic at November 15, 2005 12:43 PM
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