Mary Oliver was not just an American poet; she was an American prophet. She was not only one of the most popular poets in American literary history; she wrote in the same vein as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman about the world, and humanity’s place in it.
Like a modern-day Emily Dickinson, she rarely traveled far from home. When she did, she hardly wrote about it. No, poem after poem grew from the minute and endlessly fascinating forests and seashores of her home in Cape Cod. She wrote again and again about the black snake, the snapping turtle, the wild roses, the surging sea. Each time, she brought us new insight into our own world.
I speak in broad strokes. But her poetry means so much to me, and has for a very long time. I didn’t appreciate poetry until I read her work. I rarely read it, hardly understood it. Mary Oliver’s poems opened me to all poetry. Through hers I began to read others, and now my shelves burst with poetry books and my head is aswirl in poems I’ve memorized and I find myself writing poetry.
The beauty of Oliver’s work is many-fold. It is accessible: many who read her poems would not otherwise read poetry at all. It is rooted in the classics: she once said that she found her two true loves early in life: nature and dead poets. Steeped in the classics and roaming the world beyond humans, she found truths that resonate deeply.
Many poets and critics express disdain for her work, but the form of poetry is wide, and large enough to hold it all. Her poems, like Dickenson and Whitman before her, reach multitudes; her tribe is vast and varied.
I first heard her poems at an Audubon camp on an island off the coast of Maine. I was in college; I had gotten a scholarship to attend the camp for teachers and writers; I was a nascent environmental writer inspired by Edward Abbey and Rachel Carson. One night around the fire, a camp instructor recited “Wild Geese.” Like him, I memorized it.
Years later, at a writer’s conference in Montana, a group of us spontaneously recited that poem together. What joy: that “You do not have to be good.” That “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” That “the world offers itself to your imagination, over and over announcing your place....”
The thing is, in her I found someone who loved the more-than-human world the way I do: deeply and fully, with an unabashedly fierce allegiance, and with no assumption of human superiority. With, in fact, quite the opposite: her poems remind us that the more-than-human world has much to teach us. She was the willing supplicant, the monk wandering the fields and shores all day to listen and transcribe.
Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about
— from “Landscape,” by Mary Oliver
A poet that titles a book What Do We Know has realized this essential truth: that we humans do not know very much at all, though we act as if we know it all. That this hubris is our downfall, and with it, much of the wild and wonderful world. But though she did not avoid the sorrows, she continuously sang the songs of praise for the world that is.
Her poems are an integral part of my life. I read “The Sun” aloud to my family every summer solstice. “The Chance to Love Everything” hangs on my wall joined to a crayon image of the Earth my son drew when he was seven. Lines ring in my head:
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 down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
from “The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver
such wild love—
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
as it warms you
as you stand there,
or have you too
for power, for things?
“The Sun,” by Mary Oliver
For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life/ too much,” it said,
into the world.
from “One or Two Things,” by Mary Oliver
When she died on January 17, through my grief I felt gratitude. I am grateful that I found her poetry. Grateful that editors and publishers let her work out into the world to find me. Grateful that she wrote them, day after day, walking the woods and the dark ponds and then sitting at her desk, so that they could find their way to me.
~ Originally published on 49 Writers’ blog at 49Writers.org
In honor of National Poetry Month and Earth Day, 49 Writers, Cirque Journal, and Poetry Parley present Such Deep Love: A Mary Oliver Tribute in celebration and appreciation of Mary Oliver’s poetry, emceed by Marybeth Holleman. Sunday April 21, 4-6 PM, 2019 at The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe | 3956 Spenard Rd, Anchorage. One of America’s most popular poets, Oliver died on January 17, 2019. “My work is loving the world,” wrote Oliver, and in 37 books over 58 years, she did just that. The full and deep love of the more-than-human world she expresses in poems teaches us how to pay attention, and in so doing, opens us to our own “wild and precious lives.” Featured Alaskan poets Monica Devine, Marybeth Holleman, Christy Everett Jordan, Jeremy Pataky, and Karen Tschannen will proceed an open mic; readers will be invited to sign up for five minutes max to read their favorite Mary Oliver poem, read their own work inspired by hers, or speak about how her poetry has inspired their own work and life.