Poetry for Building Community by R.S. Thomas & Mary Oliver

“Lore” by R. S. Thomas

Job Davies, eighty-five
Winters old, and still alive
After the slow poison
And treachery of the seasons.

Miserable? Kick my arse!
It needs more than the rain’s hearse,
Wind-drawn to pull me off
The great perch of my laugh.

What’s living but courage?
Paunch full of hot porridge
Nerves strengthened with tea,
Peat-black, dawn found me

Mowing where the grass grew,
Bearded with golden dew.
Rhythm of the long scythe
Kept this tall frame lithe.

What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
Whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.

Thomas, a Welsh priest, and poet wrote this eulogy in honor of a neighbor. This meditation on Jacob Davies’ life is full of natural imagery. Davies was clearly a man of his place, as the images of the poem confirm: wind, winter, peat, grass, and so on.

Thomas was fond of upending conventional wisdom, and in the last line, he does so perfectly. Against a world that demands scale and limitless growth – whose accepted dogma is to cultivate limitless appetite – Thomas offers an alternative for living into the world’s abundance. Small, fine-grained dreams will transform us, so that we can live large – lustily, joyously, heartily – on our blocks and with our neighbors.

For reflection: Consider how you might dream smaller in your work and in your neighborhood. What are the little details that you have not yet paid attention to? Who are the overlooked people that could turn out to be the missing link to the thriving of the place?

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver meditates in this poem on the gift of attention. She begins with a huge, impossible question, “Who made the world?” and quickly focuses in on the life of something very small – a grasshopper. The shift of focus from the universal to the very small and particular suggests the sort of thing that we might all “be doing all day.” The preciousness of our lives, like the preciousness of a single grasshopper, offers to us amazing possibilities in an enormous world. To stay wild, to remain gentle, to pay attention – those are the qualities that keep us alive and present in the world.

For reflection: Kneel in the grass. Be idle for a few moments. Take a stroll. What else should you do?

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