Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Poet's Job: Pay Attention

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” 
Mary Oliver
I have always loved this quote by Mary Oliver and think it speaks profoundly to a writer’s need to pay attention to the world around her. Now that the beautiful colors of autumn beckon, I try to walk as much as possible. The other afternoon I spotted hundreds of tiny acorns peppering the ground. There were also wooly caterpillars sporting their cold weather coats. A neighbor’s chickens were invisible, but I could hear their cluck and chatter as I walked by the house where they are kept.
Will these observations become a poem? Perhaps. Several years ago I wrote a poem called“Wild Turkeys” about a group of turkeys that ambled across our driveway in the early morning hours. In the opening stanza, I wrote:

       a family of wild turkeys
                    crosses the driveway
                    at dawn, the young ones
                    scrabbling along the stones --
                    beaks down, eager for
                    acorns or nuts. The two females
                    dull-brown, strut briskly
                    as they scan for shelter.
                    Soon enough they cross
                    over to woodlands,
                    a flock of feathers
                    disappearing into brush.

This was poetry that came from direct observation and memory, but it was more
than that. I identified with the mothers marching their offspring around our neighborhood. I wanted to shape this moment in time and have it touch some universal experience. Later, in this poem, I wrote:

                    When a young turkey 
                    goes missing
                    the whole flock stops,
                    waiting for the little one
                    to return.
                    Like them,
                    I search the golden fields,
                    the grassy inclines
                    for that one moment
                    when I spot the beloved,
                    the world gone mad
                    with the frenzy of my longing
                    then a stalled breath,        
                    then quiet, then
                    fog lifting
                    over the dark earth.

Here, I extend the image of the mother turkey looking for her lost young one to one of the lover waiting for the beloved. I wanted to take something specific and make it work on another level. There are magical things awaiting the poet in the world and it’s our job to look, to see and to capture it in words.



  1. What a beautiful poem!
    As I writer I very much identify with the power and importance of observation. I love to listen to snippets of conversations, watch people interact, notice the differences between a young woman in her twenties and an older woman in her eighties. How people walk, talk, laugh, cry and react to various experiences is essential for us as writers to know and understand.

  2. I agree that observation is key for any kind of writer. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this!