I want to share “Swan” by Mary Oliver for the new year or for any period of change and transformation.
This powerful poem by Mary Oliver is about being present and about change. That might sound like a paradox: how can we both be present and invite change?
For a long time, I struggled with that question until I realized it’s not a paradox at all: change is always happening from the present moment. We cannot be anywhere other than right where we are. And since time is always moving and nothing, in fact, is ever static, the present moment is always about to change. So we can be right here, fully present, and also preparing for the kind of change that we want, pointing our feet in the right direction.
We may fear things won’t change because humans get caught in old habit energy, in old beliefs, in institutions and structures that keep us stuck. But organic change is always around us.
In this poem, the swan is always in motion. The poem asks us to follow that motion, to see with more keen eyes, the “armful of white blossoms,” the “commotion of silk and linen.” And it asks us to listen with more keen ears to the swan’s “shrill dark music” like a waterfall “knifing down the black ledges.” These lines and images are wonderful and original and make us see and hear differently.
In this new seeing and hearing, the bird, stretched across the river, becomes an image of resurrection and transformation.
And that transformation extends to the readers. The poem ends, as Oliver’s poems often do, posing questions to us, the readers. If we pay careful attention–to the natural world and to the poem itself–we will be brought to a place of real change.
Here’s the poem:
Swan by Mary Oliver
Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –an armful of white blossoms,
a perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
a shrill dark music, like the rain pelting the trees like a waterfall
knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
a white cross streaming across the sky, its feet
like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
This poem inspires me for the new year!
Here are some writing prompts from Swan by Mary Oliver to help us enter 2021:
- How have you changed your life in the past? How do you want to change your life now?
- How has beauty made you act differently?
- What do you think beauty is “for”?
- What is the role of art in your life?
- Find something to look at closely. Describe it in detail. Does the act of describing it leave you with a shift in perspective? Does it make you want to do anything different in your life?
- In what ways are you a steward of the natural world? What does that question mean to you?
- In what direction do you want to fly across the water?
- Use these six words in a piece of writing: swan, snowbank, river, everything, stretching, dark, change
Choose the prompt that calls out to you. I like to offer a selection of prompts so that you can choose the one that is right for you for this moment. Come back to the prompts another day and choose another one. And it’s always fun to try writing after meditation. Try one of my meditations before you write.