The Common Good

Pay Attention: An Afternoon with Billy Collins and Mary Oliver

What’s the first thing you think of when you think poetry readings by a Poet Laureate and a Pullitzer Prize winner? Well, whatever it is, I’m sure you weren’t thinking dogs.

Rachel Giese Brown
Mary Oliver has won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Rachel Giese Brown

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Nonetheless, pet dogs were brought up more than anything else during poetry readings by Billy Collins and Mary Oliver at the Strathmore in Bethesda, Md. on Sunday. They managed to bring up their dogs in a beautifully poetic way, of course.

But perhaps the most important take away from the evening came from Oliver during a question-and-answer time after the readings. She said something like this: “Pay attention. Be astonished. And tell about it. We’re soaked in distractions. The world didn’t have to be beautiful. We can and should think about that beauty and be grateful.”

Those are words I have tried to live by for the last year.

Both poets demonstrated that attention in their work — even in poems about dogs.  

Take Oliver’s poem For I Will Consider my Dog Percywhere Oliver learns from her dog’s constant engagement with life: “For he came to me impaired and therefore certain of short life, yet thoroughly rejoiced in each day./  … For when he came upon mud he splashed through it./ … For when he sniffed it was as if he were being pleased by every part of the world.” In Percy, Oliver sees a way of living that embraces the beauty of life — the sounds, the smells, and the feelings.

Billy Collins was a little funnier but just as elegant in his work. Collins also brought up dogs, arguing that they just have a way of brightening things up. Collins jokingly remarked that in workshops he tells young poets to throw their dogs into poems to get a minute away from focusing so much on themselves.

Dogs aside, Collins tends to take seemingly trivial parts of his life and turn them into witty ruminations that almost always have the audience “ahh”-ing after the last line.

In his poem Cheerios, Collins writes about a morning in a restaurant in Chicago where he looked in the paper only to discover he was a few months older than Cheerios. He tells us he can already hear them whispering behind his back, “Why that dude’s older than Cheerios,” but then turns the poem into a thoughtful examination of the longevity of nature and the temporality of human life.

Both poets are more than worth a read, and they demonstrate a practice we could all exercise a little more: paying attention.

Brandon Hook is the Online Assistant at Sojourners.

Mary Oliver Photo by Rachel Giese Brown.

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