Well, if I’ve learned anything from the practice of Lectio Poetica, it’s that objective meaning—what the poem “really” means, either to the poet or a literary critic or frankly to anyone else at all—simply doesn’t matter, at least in the moment. Who cares. What matters is what it means to me. As I often say: Be completely, utterly, embarrassingly subjective when you listen to a poem. (Or a bird.) It’s not an academic paper or a scientific treatise. It’s not about thinking. It’s about feeling, about sensing, about listening and looking and letting the words and phrases, the sounds and scenes, touch you or move you or crack something open in you.
A poem is a fleeting moment, preserved in amber. We sit, golden stone in hand, and gaze in wonder. We feel. And that feeling is, for the moment, true.
When I listened to Oliver’s poem “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” (Owls and Other Fantasies, 2003), I stood still, like the poet in the second stanza, hearing the song of a single thrush among the spring leaves, and thought, like the poet in the third stanza, of nothing. Time stood still. Then, after a while, like the poet in the eighth stanza, I, too, became part of the song. And the song was, for me—as it was for the chorus of birds, the drifting clouds, the sky and, indeed, the whole earth—a song about what’s right with the world. A song about what’s good, no matter how bad things get.
“Does your own soul need comforting?” asks the poet. Are your feet heavy? Are you sitting indoors, where the air is stale and the view impeded by so many walls? “Are there trees near you?” she asks, provocatively. Are birds singing? “Quick, then—open the door…”
Sure, it’s romantic. Oliver waxes eloquent about moments of transcendent bliss in the wild embrace of nature, times the mystics and sages say last forever . . . or, wait, do they disappear right before your eyes? Hmm, elsewhere in the poem she seems to contradict herself, and your brain kicks in, like a scientist or an English teacher. What the heck is she saying here? And then you remember. Oops. Wrong question. What is your soul saying?
What are you feeling—when you let yourself stand and listen to the song, and think of nothing at all?
If you’re like me right now, you feel like singing. With the danged birds. You feel like grinning, with the Cheshire cat. You feel like dancing, with the little girl spinning to the sound of a harp on the Pearl Street Mall. You feel like weeping for joy, with the weary woman in the hospital bed, hearing the warm words of a poem brought as a gift on a Sunday afternoon in winter.
You feel like breaking into song at the enduring beauty of the world. Despite everything that’s wrong.
You remember, as war grinds on and polar ice caps melt and people cut one another off in traffic and your body hurts in ways you never imagined when you were young—you remember what’s right with the world. What’s right with you, and your life. Your past and your present. Your family and friends. You see again the romance of it all, like a poet enchanted by birdsong on a morning in spring. You go outside, perhaps you limp or hobble. You close your eyes, and feel the sun on your face. Sure you hurt. But a bird is singing in the wild branches. For a timeless moment, you’re wild again. You’re real again. You come back indoors, changed.
With the Quaker folk song, you ask, “How can I keep from singing?”
You’re glad you didn’t look up the meaning of birdsong on Wikipedia. You’re glad you let yourself be carried away, foolishly, by your subjective feelings. Even your brain is happy. Maybe tomorrow, or later this afternoon, your brain will actually remember what thinking is for.
Well, maybe. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
—Jay E. Valusek