Beauty the Brave

Extra­or­di­nary. A poet fill­ing a 2,500 seat con­cert hall, a stand­ing ova­tion for her inspired pres­ence and ecsta­t­ic read­ing. Mary Oliv­er, Pulitzer Prize win­ner, Nation­al Book Award win­ner, remark­able human being, cap­ti­vat­ed the crowd last night at Benaroya Hall in Seat­tle. I’ve rarely attend­ed an event as deeply delight­ful and as moving.

When was it I dis­cov­ered her poems? Many years ago in the midst of major life-tran­si­tions (have they ever stopped?) The Jour­ney was the first and Wild Geese and The Sum­mer Day. Mary Oliv­er’s poems are emi­nent­ly acces­si­ble, which is to say pro­found in their sim­plic­i­ty. There is often a trans­par­ent mag­ic in them, and some­times trans­par­ent grief, elo­quent­ly con­nect­ed to her stat­ed pur­pose of lov­ing the world. A few lines and it is clear she has been to the bot­tom of our mod­ern wound, the loss of our inno­cent per­cep­tion and con­nec­tion to that world.

And for this rea­son I have also often felt that she touch­es deeply on the kinds of lead­er­ship themes that most inter­est me, the ones that see lead­ing as a mys­tery that begins with a desire to help in the heal­ing of that wound. The great lead­ers I most admire are entire­ly real­is­tic and prag­mat­ic, under­stand­ing that the human spir­it must pass through many dark times in order to grow, but they have not lost their inner capac­i­ty for pri­ma­ry inno­cence, for dreams and delight, despite those inevitable, some­times awful loss­es intrin­sic to the process of becoming.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and pre­cious life?

she writes at the end of The Sum­mer Day, which is a ques­tion about awak­en­ing, attend­ing to the world, and in so ask­ing she cuts through the dross of our dai­ly ambi­tions, machi­na­tions, com­plaints, and tele­vised self-absorp­tion. Her poems bring our heads and hearts back up out of the sand to do some­thing rad­i­cal: to see and feel what is real­ly here, to re-ground our potent imag­i­na­tions in that view. Quot­ing The Jour­ney, we are then free to save the only lives we can save.

Lis­ten­ing last night from the fourth row back as she shared one remark­able poem after the next, I thought, “What have we done to this con­cept of lead­ing?” Cor­rupt­ed it. Giv­en it over to for­mu­las, cat­e­gories, tech­niques, the will and the con­science, to cold, over­ly mas­cu­line attrib­ut­es based on the nature of pow­er and inten­tion­al influ­ence. Hmmm, there is a side of lead­er­ship that touch­es these ele­ments, but it also makes lead­ing some­thing dis­tant and lone­ly — and only for the few. The tes­ti­mo­ny of Mary Oliv­er, her 71 year-old voice strong and hum­ble, stands up to all that by sim­ply remind­ing us — any of us — of the mag­nif­i­cence of the place where we live and remind­ing us, too, of our inner mis­sion, by virtue of the pri­ma­ry love from which we came and are des­tined to reclaim. Sim­ple. Profound. 

There she was: “beau­ty the brave, the exem­plary, blaz­ing open.”

She is exact­ly her poems.

Mary Oliver

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  • Sounds like a pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence. I don’t know if I agree that Mary Oliv­er is exact­ly her poems … but I’ll grant you some poet­ic license on that count [groan].

    In yet anoth­er instance of “you spot it, you got it” (how’s that for some poet­ry? [dou­ble groan]) … I’d say that you are exact­ly your blog … or, more pro­saical­ly, the essence of Dan shines forth through each and every post. And I have no doubt that you are your lead­er­ship coach­ing, as well.

    Syn­chro­nis­ti­cal­ly, Ter­ry Gross was inter­view­ing Sheryl Crow (who I know you also saw per­form recent­ly) on Fresh Aire today — “Sheryl Crow, Grace­ful­ly nav­i­gat­ing Detours”, dur­ing which it seemed (to me) that Sheryl Crow is also exact­ly her songs.

    I believe that any tru­ly authen­tic artist — poet, blog­ger / lead­er­ship coach, or singer / song­writer — can­not help but be their art. Here’s to beau­ty, brav­ery, exem­plar­i­ness and blaz­ing openness!

  • Joe

    You are right, of course, and yet I was espe­cial­ly drawn to those words, “She is exact­ly her poems.” Maybe that gets at what you mean by a “tru­ly authen­tic” artist as opposed to a devel­op­ing artist or a “false, inau­then­tic” one, I don’t know. What took me there as I was writ­ing the post were the images of peonies in the poem of that name. It’s the one that con­tains that line about “beau­ty the brave, the exem­plary, burst­ing open.” That’s the way I lit­er­al­ly see Mary Oliv­er — the exem­plary. It hit me so pow­er­ful­ly at the read­ing that I choked up. Here was a per­son who did­n’t just write these gor­geous poems, and who does­n’t just “live” them in the ordi­nary way of liv­ing con­gru­ent­ly with her val­ues. Instead, there was no sep­a­ra­tion at all. She is these images and metaphors. To read them, and par­tic­u­lar­ly to hear them from her own voice is to expe­ri­ence anoth­er soul in a sacred, inti­mate way, unmedi­at­ed by abstrac­tions and stronger than any pri­vate self-conversations. 

    Look­ing back at the post, it makes me think about how much “self-tele­vi­sion” there is that pre­vents real see­ing and feel­ing of our rela­tion­ships with oth­ers or the nat­ur­al world that holds us togeth­er as a human race. Most­ly, what took me to that moment of emo­tion was her own expres­sion of a pure grief…that we love an inno­cence and joy that has been all but lost, and yet all we have to do is see and feel again, as per­haps an ani­mal would, and it can be there for us again.

    You only have to let the soft ani­mal of your body
    love what it loves.

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