A persistent theme through Mary Oliver’s work is the natural world as both beauty and metaphor in one—to be admired and also to be learned from. This is one of those particularly meta-level works of writing that is at least a little about writing; here I think the act of writing poetry is a little undersold:
My kind of work, which is only putting words on a page,
Haltingly calling up
The light of the world,
“Only” putting words on a page! The care taken to split the lines shorter on those three lines to emulate the world “haltingly”—that’s not just putting words on a page, although that bit feels knowingly tongue-in-cheek when coupled with calling it “calling up / the light of the world.”
Though, even then, she compares it as less bright than the song of the mockingbird, or the vision of a heron in flight: the light of the world bearing the light of the world. The heron is the inspiration she was looking for: “He is exactly the poem I wanted to write.” There’s a lot of back-and-forth on the topic of how to be as productive a writer as one wants to be—I see a lot of people asking for advice on writing blogs and columns who seem to be waiting for inspiration to come find them, chasing that “perfect” idea that hasn’t come to them yet. I think here in this poem it’s less that, and more being open to the inspiration that the world around you holds. Writing is a solo activity, most of the time, but it’s not something we can really do cloistered, especially since the ideal of most writers is to reach out to others and have them understand or feel understood.
(Though: speaking of understanding—I decided I wanted to write about this poem when I saw this post of the last line, written in lovely cursive, which takes on a completely different meaning out of context from the rest of the poem, ha ha ha.)