Kevin’s Much Loved Poems–“Lead,” “Unto a Broken Heart,” and “Hello, Heart”

This continues the series of columns that highlight a much-loved poem and presents other poems that speak to, or resonate with, that poem. This week features “Lead,” by Mary Oliver. The second related poem is by Emily Dickinson; the third is one of mine.

The complete Poetry Foundation entry on Mary Oliver is available at Poetry Foundation: Mary Oliver. In part it states: Poet Mary Oliver is an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” wrote Maxine Kumin in the Women’s Review of Books, “particularly to its lesser-known aspects.” Oliver’s verse focuses on the quiet of occurrences of nature: industrious hummingbirds, egrets, motionless ponds, “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.” Kumin noted that Oliver “stands quite comfortably on the margins of things, on the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.” Oliver’s poetry has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and a Lannan Literary Award. Reviewing Dream Work (1986) for the Nation, critic Alicia Ostriker numbered Oliver among America’s finest poets, as “visionary as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson”


by Mary Oliver

Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
This winter
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.

Hear the poem recited by Rick Jackson with titles and haunting loon songs: Mary Oliver’s poem “Lead”

What attracted me to Mary Oliver’s poem was her positive view of a broken heart. In the general culture, we’re supposed to abhor the idea of a broken heart–we want to fix it–but Ms. Oliver sees a broken heart as a way to open up “and never close again.” The two poems that follow continue this theme.

* * *

The first poem that resonates with Oliver’s is marvelously concise. It’s by Emily Dickinson, who Galway Kinnell often referred to as “our poetry mother.” (Walt Whitman was our poetry father).

The complete Poetry Foundation entry on Emily Dickinson is available at Poetry Foundation: Emily Dickinson. In part it states: “Emily Dickinson is one of America’s greatest and most original poets of all time. She took definition as her province and challenged the existing definitions of poetry and the poet’s work. . . . Like the Concord Transcendentalists whose works she knew well, she saw poetry as a double-edged sword. While it liberated the individual, it as readily left him ungrounded. The literary marketplace, however, offered new ground for her work in the last decade of the 19th century. When the first volume of her poetry was published in 1890, four years after her death, it met with stunning success. Going through eleven editions in less than two years, the poems eventually extended far beyond their first household audiences.”

Unto a broken heart

by Emily Dickinson

Unto a broken heart
No other one may go
Without the high prerogative
Itself hath suffered too.

The noun that powers this poem, it seems to me, is “prerogative.” The noun empowers the heart’s owner to let a heart break or not, when a broken heart will open it up to others. It kind of creates a secret brokenhearted club that lessens the impact of the near rhyme of ‘go’ and ‘too.’

And, yes, her fans might remember a related couplet from another of her poems, reflecting a more traditional notion of a broken heart: “If I can keep one heart from breaking / I shall not live in vain.” Here is in a 23-second video: Emily Dickinson’s If I Can Keep One Heart from Breaking

* * *

The second poem is a poem I wrote in response to Mary Oliver’s notion of a broken heart being more open.

“It is better for the heart to break,
than not to break.” ― Mary Oliver

Here’s the poem:

Hello, Heart

by Kevin Arnold

Until she broke you, I wasn’t
sure you existed. At most, just
another organ, a spleen or a liver.

She let me experience heartache not
as tired metaphor for unrequited love
but as physical pain. She let you show

me joy, but also watched as you
radiated agony beating from my
center, my grown-up open heart.


Photo By: Sculpture by Jim Dine