Saturday, May 10, 2008

No Regrets?

Kelli Russell Agodon recently posted the notes she took during Mary Oliver's reading and talk at Pacific Lutheran University. The talk, Mary Oliver and The Writer's Story, consisted of an hour-long Q&A. Many thanks to Kelli for her notes which are full of wonderful thoughts. One question and answer that made me pause and reflect for several days:

Question: As a poet, what's your biggest regret?

Answer "I don't' have any." She said she is very happy with her life as a poet and living with her art. She said, "Art is an essential hallway into a spiritual life."

I kept thinking no regrets? None? Is that possible? Okay, so maybe Oliver just means in her poetry life. But still, even with that limitation—and surely her life as a poet must be a huge part of her life—it seems to me kind of, well, not believable. Poetry is the place I go to for happiness, and my life as a poet is intensely exciting and satisfying, even when I'm writing sad poems. Nevertheless, I have lots of regrets as a poet. Why didn't I start sooner? Why didn't I pursue this or that opportunity more aggressively? Why don't I write everyday? Why do I go weeks or longer without producing?

And don't even get me started on other areas of my life. I don't want to go on a real bummer, but I'm always regretting something. The list could go on and on. These thoughts got me to remembering and thinking about a poem I like by Natasha Saje. It's from her collection, Bend (Tupelo Press).

I regret I sleep so much, that my body
makes demands I do not refuse. I regret
my thirties, unreasonable as crabgrass,
and I regret the two vertical lines between
my brows, the manifestation of my anxieties
which of course I also regret. I regret
the Swiss milk pitcher broken by the neighbor’s
cat and I regret my soft teeth. I regret nights
I stayed awake baking or reading novels
that changed me only momentarily. I
regret that capitalism is my religion
and the small red purse I do not use.
I regret lying in the sun as a teenager and
not putting a safety catch on my grandmother’s
brooch. I regret the poisoned dish of lacquered duck
in 1977, and the squirrel that last year
got caught in a rat trap. I regret the Procrustean
bed of my job and having no columbine
seeds from the beds by the old library. I regret
the demise of the streetcar and the perils
of color, and that in my sleep I do not
dismantle silence. O my Great Lake of Regrets,
my body a floating island—

I like the structure of the poem, the repetition and list. I like the mixture of serious and trivial regrets, the resulting feeling of disproportion. I like Saje's word choice: manifestation, crabgrass, capitalism, brooch, lacquered, Procrustean, columbine, demise, perils, dismantled. These words appeal to my ear and my brain. And what an ending with its sudden switch to apostrophe and the metaphor that drifts off to an unfinished thought.

Challenge: Make your own list—regrets, minor infractions, things for which you should apologize, or things for which you refuse to apologize. Turn the list into a poem.

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  1. You've touched on the reason I do not like Mary Oliver's work - an unrealistic, feel-good sheen over so, so much of it. Which strikes me as essentially dishonest to readers. And I'm for honesty in poetry, it's what keeps the soul of poetry alive.

  2. I think some people decide not to have regrets...I know I have done that to an extent. I know there are things I could regret (loads of them) but I have decided that that is not how I am going to look at them or feel about them. It was not a quick decision...more like one that took years and for me it's a question of survival, a question of not endlessly dwelling on 'what ifs'.I don't say I never made mistakes or missed opportunities - I just acknowledge them...they happened, that's it. I can't speak for the poet in the post (I know her name but not a lot of her work) but I know for me it's not's just choosing how to interpret my own life in a way that makes me able to get up in the morning (at least some days).

  3. Jeannine--I like much of Oliver's work, but I find that when I read a lot of it, I start to feel like the poet is attempting to cheerlead me into happiness. I can't get real excited about some sprigs of forsythia when the people in my life are in pain.

    Rachel--I love your philosophy and I've tried to practice it, but there are times when it just doesn't work, when those dark forces enter and keep me up all night. I've accepted that I can't control the lives of people I care about, but I haven't yet been able to make myself keep them out of my thoughts. Sometimes I just can't help dwelling.

  4. Yes, I'm not saying it always works 100% for me either! I find it helps me be a better parent though...I had a depressive parent and that was not good so I try my best to not relive all that. I said I try!

    For writing I find both sides (ups and downs) are both equally important. Life is really fantastic and really rubbish...hard to work that out sometimes but true, I think.

  5. Dear Diane,
    Forsythia I don't mind, as long as there's a little of the other there in the poem as well - a little mud puddle, oil spill, etc. I know exactly what you mean. It still feels mean to say "I don't like her work" - she's not a terrible person or poet - but I think her work encourages people to believe that poetry should make people "feel good." We're not Hallmark, people! A poet is not a jukebox, etc.
    Thanks for bringing up the topic - and I loved the regret poem you posted.

  6. Regret is a tricky feeling,if it is a feeling or maybe itis a state of mind. Too much regret can disable a person but feeling sad for a moment about something that might have been is not always a bad thing.I know for myself it is a clarifying state because I eventually decide I have always been where I was suppose to. And what was a regret becomes a possibility of rewritng my life story. I do know what it is like to feel totally absorbed in regret. It is pretty dark. I think that is why like I like Rachel have taken on this type of view.
    Thanks for linking me Diane. I may challenge myself to write a poem about regret. I wonder if I can do it without feeling regret!

  7. I like the Regret List prompt. Making the list has given me ideas for several future essays, and I suspect most of them won't be about the darkness of regret, but rather where the recognition of that regret leads. How understanding what we think of as a regret changes the way we look at other events and emotions, changes our actions and words.

    Good blog - glad to discover a blogger I like who is literally in my backyard, Essex County, NJ!

  8. Hi Lisa and Elizabeth--I think you are both right on--regret is something we can learn from. And if we have no regrets??? I've been thinking more about this topic this week and appreciating Jane Kenyon's "Happiness" and Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things," both poems that acknowledge the darkness but find a kind of peace.
    Or should I put that the other way around?

    Lisa--the Erika Dreifus you mention on your blog was once my student! and a very excellent one too. I hope, since you're in Essex County that you can come to the festival I'm running on June 1.

  9. Of course it all depends how 'bad' the things you have done (and might regret) really are...Then there's the things you didn't do!


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