Essay

The Autumn Heart

Yesterday, Mary Oliver released a new collected edition of her work, aptly titled Devotions. I think often of Oliver’s poems–contemporary psalms as surely as they are anything else.

I’ve written here before about Oliver’s poem, “Lines written in days of growing darkness.” And I decided it’s okay to talk about it once again–no one apologizes for sharing on of David’s psalms twice.  It’s a poem I love dearly, not just because of its evocative description of my favorite season, but because of the way it addresses the “autumn heart.” Fall isn’t just Keatsian “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” after all, but a reminder of broken-heartedness and impending loss. “Who would cry out” as the world decays, as age gets more and more advanced, as death stops for more and more folks I love? I would. And I do.

But the poem balances the melancholy of the season with a radical hope, rooted in love. And gives us a way forward–not triumphalistically–but “cheerfully enough,” with a wise gladness.

That’ll do.

Lines written in the days of growing darkness

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends

into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?

So let us go on, cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

Mary Oliver, from A Thousand Mornings

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

One Comment

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    It is a beautiful poem, well worth another reading. I especially like the line “knowing the vivacity of the past is married to the vitality of what will be.” Thank you for sharing it and your comments.

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