What is the meaning of the poem "The Swimming Lesson" by Mary Oliver?

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In the poem "The Swimming Lesson," Mary Oliver writes about situations in life that seem to be overwhelming. The "icy kick" and the "endless waves" refer to surrounding circumstances that are so intense and dangerous, either physically or psychologically, that all you can do is try your best not to drown in them. To illustrate how difficult it can be to survive in conditions that appear to be devastating, she uses the analogy of a swimming lesson.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a maxim is a "general truth, fundamental principle, rule of conduct, or proverbial saying." The expression "medieval maxim" that Oliver uses in the poem would mean a rule of conduct that perhaps seemed valid long ago but is no longer true or no longer applies to modern situations. She is referring here to the practice of throwing people who are unable to swim into the water, trusting that they will become desperate enough to learn how to swim on their own. What is most likely to happen, however, is...

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