She paints the world around her with words.


I’m probably preaching to the choir, but if there is one of you, those affirmed poetry haters, who sneaked into the back row over there on the end, please do take care. Mary Oliver could own your heart before you even have time to switch hats. You’ve been warned. In fact, I’m such a zealot, I think poetry, especially Mary Oliver, should be read to each baby as they eat their Pablum. Who knows, maybe we’d end up with a president who is a poet or a pope perhaps or even the Secretary of Defense.

I’m not interested in voyeuristically describing Ms. Oliver’s lifestyle, her love life, her choice of places to live, or her personal history, none of that. Besides, her life is not so very different from most of ours in that she too has struggled, known pain, and lived in the suffocating crush of seeming cosmic questions that shadowed her for years. What pulls her from the crowd is what she did with that. She turned to the world outside her cottage, mingling with it daily, watching and listening. Rather than judge, she marveled, and when nature sensed one of its own in its midst, her experiences intensified and became unforgettable poems tinged with awe and optimism. Her success was due to what it is most often due to with writers or poets, she wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and, as she attests, never took an interesting job.

Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver

As the years rolled on, her poems looked more deeply at the human/nature interface—what we could learn about ourselves from knowing the natural world. Her own search for answers took her both to religion and the forest, nature seeming to offer more awareness and solace, as she suggested in What I Said at Her Service:

When we pray to love God “perfectly,”

surely we do not mean “only.”

The beauty of her poems to me is there penchant for simplicity. Even in the midst of a profound observation, the language remains uncomplicated and obvious.

I have lived with a foot in two centuries, and though the jury is still out on either as to which artistic giants will have walked through these times, there is at least one name in place on the list for posterity—Mary Oliver. Yes, she is a Pulitzer Prize winner, among many other tributes, but I’ve never been one to accord awards much distinction. Not that she didn’t deserve that prize, I’m just not sure that it was deserving of her. For greatness is not merely about results. It is also about how we live hour-to-hour, day-by-day, the grind that requires commitment, endurance and courage and will not let anything or anyone rein you back from the edge of integrity. I don’t mean doing it your way; I mean something quite the contrary—getting out of your way regardless of the tugs of society, the chaos in your head and at last, your fears. For art is not a product of what is in our minds; it is instead the movement of the universe expressing through us. As Ms. Oliver suggests:

…and how could anyone believe

that anything in this world

is only what it appears to be—

that anything is ever final—

that anything in spite of its absence

ever dies

a perfect death?

Two people who love me very much heard me say in passing one day, Before I leave this earth, I want to own a copy of every book Mary Oliver has published.” Come  Christmas two years ago, there under our little wooden Christmas tree was the stack of books that made that wish come true. Her poem The Journey inspired my novel DYING TO KNOW. Her poem The Messenger created the protagonist for my soon to be published trilogy, ACCIDENTS OF BIRTH. When I need to get in the moment to start writing for the day, first I read Mary Oliver’s poems to center me, to remind me what is true. It is as if I owe a substantive part of my writing career to this poet of poets.

But still there is more. Through the solitary task of writing, I recognize a kindred soul, a new friend, one with whom I discuss the sacred and holy merely by reading her poems. We may never share an afternoon of tea and time lived, but we won’t miss it by much when I read her poem What Is It? and smile.

…How sometimes everything

closes up, a painted fan, landscapes and moments

flowing together until the sense of distance—

say, between Clapp’s Pond and me—

vanishes, edges slide together

like the feathers of a wing, everything

touches everything.


Later, lying half-asleep under

the blankets, I watch

while the doe, glittering with rain, steps

under the wet slabs of the pines, stretches

her long neck down to drink


from the pond

three miles away.

Those who gift us with masterful poetry don’t wait on kudos or languish in the face of probable recognition, for a great poem is like a feast that feeds the writer and the reader too. What could we possibly add from gratitude that could top off the moments of ecstasy that comes with reading one’s own perfect line? In To Begin With, the Sweet Grass, Mary Oliver recounts her journey:

…And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope.

I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is.

I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned,

I have become younger.

And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?

Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on poetry and Mary Oliver.

DyingToKnow-3dLeftPlease click the book cover to read more about Dying to Know on Amazon.


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