Mary Oliver's Contributions

March 1, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I never needed a reason to love the world, I simply just always have. With its faults and near-misses, its greed and its hope. I love the way it is patched together like a great quilt of countries and languages, mountains and deserts. Most of all, I love, and am humbled by the fact that somehow I participate in that great, complicated quilt. And so, many years ago, when I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s poetry, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Oliver passed away in January of this year and to speak of her in the past tense grieves me greatly. Fortunately, her words remain so that her light is not altogether lost.

Oliver’s childhood was a brutal one, and yet somehow she turned around and made such beautiful things as the world had never seen. To create beauty from difficult circumstances is the first reason we should admire her. Mary Oliver turned to nature as the first place which gave her comfort. She avoided her family by walking out among rivers, flowers, and trees, but she also came to see struggle as part of the natural world. In fact, hope, in part, arrives as a result of struggle, and Oliver is eternally hopeful.

Her early work finds joy, ecstasy and divinity through nature. Then, in poems like “Rage” and “The River” she begins to address her personal pain and loss of home. She concludes “The River” with: “Home, I said./ In every language there is a word for it./ In the body itself, climbing/ those walls of white thunder, past those green/ temples, there is also/ a word for it. / I said, home.” It is an acceptance that home can be transient, not permanent. Every one of her poems grapple with big questions about love and faith, courage and forgiveness.

Many years later, she would say that she hardly knew herself in those early years. She said she had to go out and find herself, which she did by stumbling over rocky trails and along muddy rivers. That she taught herself the language of nature is the next reason that we should admire her. Countless people have quoted from “Wild Geese” or “Morning Poem” on blogs, mugs, letters, etc. Oliver’s language did not glorify or transcend nature, but put humanity squarely back into it. These poems, among many others, inspired friendship, imagination, and openness. She placed the human world within the most glorious riches of the earth, and then asked for us to witness that glory. The final sentence of “Wild Geese” is: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting - / over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” She reminds us that we are to participate with nature and to imagine that presence as part of one complicated family.

Oliver’s work has always been profound and moving. Yet, near the end of her life, she began to explore spirituality. In Blue Horses, she discusses all types of faiths as she herself battles cancer. Yet, once again, she finds that beauty is itself the answer. In the poem “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” she expresses sorrow about Marc’s career cut short by World War I. She writes, “I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses/ what war is./ … I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc./ Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually./ Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” In this poem, the natural world and the human-constructed world collide with dangerous and negative results, and still, Oliver finds beauty and names it. She responds by attending to both Marc’s life and death in a way that offers him thanks. It is this attention to detail which will make us kinder. Again and again, she asks us to use imagination in order to remind us of our connections.

During her lifetime, Mary Oliver won many awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. In addition to her writing career, however, she also taught at Bennington College. She inspired others to seek answers to big, daunting questions. Therefore, her teaching pursuits offer one more reason to admire her. At the end of her short essay titled “Upstream,” Mary writes:

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She paid attention in a way that few humans find time for anymore. Furthermore, she invites all of us to do the same. Mary Oliver’s works never fail to inspire. And yet, certainly, if she were here today and reading this, she would defer not to her work but to the land itself, to the birds and skies that fly above all of our heads.

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November 25, 2015

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Mary Oliver is a poet who often writes of attention to the natural world. Through a keen sense of awareness, one is better able to understand both themselves and the larger world. Oliver offers scenes from the natural world as a path towards our own internal growth. Oliver captures the essence of a moment with expressive, careful clarity. Nature is most often her subject and she beckons to the reader's emotions which rise and fall with the action on the page. Through Oliver's words, the reader also witnesses. According to Oliver, witness is the first step toward gratitude. In her prose-poem “Upstream” Mary Oliver writes, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Of course, this is true of all things – ourselves included.

Mary Oliver talks of beginning at the beginning. For example, she started to learn about nature simply by camping, by walking out among the trees. This turned into an observation of yet-unnamed entities. From there, she learned to identify and name the plants and animals that surrounded her. Careful observation of the smallest details offered greater proof of the intricately woven world. This action turned to adoration. She took comfort in the regularity of natural lives, in the blossoms of spring and summer, and yet also in the frost and bitter cold. Nature's ability to shine despite all external odds comforted Oliver. So, she began to write poems as a form of devotion.

Ironically, through paying attention, Oliver also discovered the impossibility of fully knowing anything. Instead, she increasingly became grateful for the opportunity to observe, interact and exist. At the end of her essay “A Blessing” she writes about summer days spent camping. She says,

“What we saw filled our minds. What we saw made us love and want to honor the world. And dear readers, if anyone thinks children in these difficult times do not need such peaceful intervals, then hang up the phone, we are not having a conversation. Without doubt those summers changed my life and my friend's. Whoever I am, and whoever my friend is now, fifty years later, we are both still part of this feast of the past. Happiness and leaves – they went together. The tender dripping of water on the tent roof, from the maples or, once, the realization that a baby skunk had taken to one of the cots we slept on and was, on a rainy morning, in a sound sleep. What could we do? Think of us – or think of your own children – in a tent that leaked only a little, and then from the beautiful rain and the elegant maples – think of us watching that very little skunk curled in the best blanket, opening its eyes sleepily and then closing them again; think of our silent and entirely happy laughter as we too went back to sleep.”

Oliver's personal connection with nature is clear. More than simply asking the reader to understand nature, however, she begs that we participate, if only by observation. It is necessary for all of us to witness. From there, she comes full circle to understanding the self, human interaction and connection. In the poem “The Whistler”, Oliver writes about the love of her life. She says,

“I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-/ kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too./ And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin/ to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with/ for thirty years?”

Reading Mary Oliver's work always instills gratitude in me, as if a vital spirit has lifted me. I feel blessed to think that I am able to participate in deep conversation. And, as always, I am the better for it. Today, I am grateful for Oliver's words, just as I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss them. As we approach holidays and times of stress, I intend to sneak back into nature, to steal a peek at some scene that refreshes, emboldens, embellishes and enlivens the world I live in. I hope you are able to do the same and I wonder whether or not your tent leaks a little too?

Happy Thanksgiving!

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