Hear Mary Oliver (RIP) Read Five of Her Poems: “The Summer Day,” “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” “Many Miles” and “Night and the River”

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 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 Prim­i­tiveand 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Meryl Streep Read Sylvia Plath’s “Morn­ing Song,” a Poem Writ­ten After the Birth of Her Daugh­ter

An 8‑Hour Marathon Read­ing of 500 Emi­ly Dick­in­son Poems

Hear Dylan Thomas Recite His Clas­sic Poem, “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Bill W. says:

    RIP, but a ‘meh’ poet. Thanks to the NEA and NPR, Amer­i­can poet­ry has been hijacked by the Iden­ti­ty Pol­i­tics “Diversity!”-crowd. All poet­ic infe­ri­ors. Unless you’re a woman, or per­son-of-col­or, the high­er-qual­i­ty Frost’s and Sandburg’s‑of-the-world need-not-apply. Style, over sub­stance. Because of this PC-mind­set, the Rock­star Age of Amer­i­can poet­ry died-out in the late-60’s. A shame!

  • gwr says:

    Odd to read Ali­cia Ostrik­er labeled as “crit­ic” here. Although she has writ­ten crit­i­cism, Ostrik­er is much bet­ter known as being one of Amer­i­ca’s lead­ing poets. High­ly regard­ed, well pub­lished and influ­en­tial, Ostrik­er is cur­rent­ly New York State’s Poet Lau­re­ate.

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