Soon after her death on January 17th of this year, the loving eulogies and appreciations began appearing in the media universe. Whatever critics might think about the plainness of her style (which she consciously aimed for), many readers of Mary Oliver’s works grew to “own” her poems. In her interview with Krista Tippett, Oliver compared poetry to prose: “People are more apt to remember a poem and therefore feel they own it and can speak it to themselves as you might a prayer.” At another point during that interview, Oliver showed how writing a particular poem (one of her more famous) was an exercise in the craft of poetry:
MS. TIPPETT: “Wild Geese” is in Dream Work, and I’ve heard people talk about that, “Wild Geese,” as a poem that has saved lives. And I wonder if when you write something like that — I mean, when you wrote that poem or when you published this book, would you have known that that was the poem that would speak so deeply to people?
MS. OLIVER: This is the magic of it. That poem was written as an exercise in end-stopped lines.
MS. TIPPETT: As an exercise in what?
MS. OLIVER: End-stopped lines. Period at the end of the line. I was working with a poet. I had her in a class.
MS. TIPPETT: So it was an exercise in technique. [laughs]
Oliver, who lived and wrote for five decades in Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, was often aptly described as a nature poet because of the many wonderfully detailed natural images that appear in her poems like the following lines from “The Summer Day:”
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
Close observation of and listening to the natural world was her preferred way of life.
The Old Poets of China
Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.
Wandering the Provincetown landscape was Oliver’s version of slipping into the mountain mist.
It’s interesting to note that Oliver’s poems are deeply appreciated by believers across religious traditions. Here are Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish examples. But she is also beloved by people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious (see for example the eighth commandment on this page). Given that her poetic vision is rooted in her love of the natural world, her poems are being read like a prayer book of an earth-centered spirituality.
United Church of Christ minister and seminary professor Thomas W. Mann believes that Oliver’s poetry is to be read as “the Other Book of God,” the Book of Nature that a number of Christian spiritual teachers since the early church have regarded as a second scripture alongside the Bible. Mann quotes St. Anthony the Great (251-356 bce): “My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, they are at my hand” (GD, xiii). And for Mann, her poetry is an essential resource for our times:
Before any attempt to address the problems of environmental degradation, however, we must undergo a change of consciousness. We must come to a new sense of the sacredness of the earth under our feet and the sky over our heads. We must come to the humble awareness that we humans are only one part of “the family of things.” We must experience a new vision of the beauty of the world. That is why we so desperately need the artists among us.
“I am a performing artist,” Oliver says. “I perform admiration. / Come with me, I want my poems to say. And do the same.” That is exactly what we intend to do. (GD, xv)
Tippett’s 2015 interview with Mary Oliver is available as a podcast and transcript. I highly recommend it. May you come to “own” some of her poems if you haven’t already.
Note: The post’s title was inspired by Mary Oliver’s statement in one of her essays: “I walk in the world to love it” (LL, 40).
Yes, ultimately it is not what we know but what we care about that makes all the difference.
Glen G. Scorgie
Yes, Mary Oliver’s work has an unusual and refreshing simplicity. And she reminds us that ultimately it is not what we know but what we care about that makes the difference.