Poets get to have strong opinions about what poetry should be and do, especially poets as well-loved as Mary Oliver, who passed away yesterday at the age of 83. “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear,” she told NPR in an interview, “It mustn’t be fancy…. I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.” Oliver’s Zen approach to her art cut right to the heart of things and honored natural, unpretentious expression. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” she writes in “The Summer Day,” “I do know how to pay attention.”
For Oliver that meant giving careful heed to the natural world, shearing away abstraction and obfuscation. She grew up in Ohio, and during a painful childhood walked through the woods for solace, where she began writing her first poems.
She became an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” as Maxine Kumin wrote, and at the same time, to the spiritual. She has been compared to Emerson and wrote “about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and worst of all, God,” Ruth Franklin remarks with irony in a New Yorker review of the poet’s last, 2017 book, Devotions. But, like Emerson, Oliver was not a writer of any orthodoxy or creed.
Oliver’s approach to the spiritual is always rooted firmly in the natural. Spirit, she writes, “needs the body’s world… to be more than pure light / that burns / where no one is.” She was beloved by millions, by teachers, writers, and celebrities. (She was once interviewed by Maria Shriver in an issue of O magazine; Gwyneth Paltrow is a big fan). Oliver was long the country’s best-selling poet, as Dwight Garner blithely writes at The New York Times. But “she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics,” Franklin points out. This despite the fact that she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her fifth book, American Primitive, and a National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems.
The word “earnest” comes up often as faint praise in reviews of Oliver’s poetry (Garner tidily sums up her work as “earnest poems about nature”). The implication is that her poems are slight, simple, unrefined. This perhaps inevitably happens to accessible poets who become famous in life, but it is also a serious misreading. Oliver's work is full of paradoxes, ambiguities, and the hard wisdom of a mature moral vision. She is “among the few American poets,” critic Alicia Ostriker writes, “who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey.” In her work, she faces suffering with “cold, sharp eyes,” confronting “steadily,” Ostriker goes on, “what she cannot change.”
Her poems have included “historical and personal suffering,” but more often she engages the life and death going on all around us, which we rarely take notice of at all. She peers into the darkness of hermit crab shells, she feeds a grasshopper sugar from the palm of her hand, watching the creature’s “jaws back and forth instead of up and down.” Oliver often wrote about the constant reminders of death in life in poems like “Death at a Great Distance” and “When Death Comes.” She wrote just as often about how astonishing it is to be alive when we make deep connections with the natural world.
“When it’s over,” Oliver writes in "When Death Comes," ” I want to say all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” The cost of not paying attention, she suggests, is to be a tourist in one’s own life and to never be at home. “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world." In the videos here, see and hear Oliver read “The Summer Day,” “Wild Geese,” “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” “Night and the River” (above) and "Many Miles."
Oliver was an artist, says Franklin, “interested in following her own path, both spiritually and poetically,” and in her work she will continue to inspire her readers to do the same. These readings will be added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness