When my brother started dating a few years after his wife passed, he was surprised that Mary Oliver’s name readily surfaced in conversations with his dates. Baffled he asked me: “Why is Mary Oliver so popular with women?” I explained: “She speaks to our soul. Her words go to the heart of our lives.”
Mary Oliver, now 82-years-old has been writing poetry for 54 years, earning esteemed awards like the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
In large measure I think Oliver’s popularity rests on poems that offer words to live by–words that stir our very being, like these verses tacked on the bulletin board next to my desk:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Oliver’s persistent subject matter is the natural world. Perhaps it’s her deep communion with nature that is responsible for her reverence for life.
Oliver is an introvert who thrives on solitude. She is most at home in the woods or by the sea, quietly soaking in the lessons provided by the trees, animals and sea life. When she walked the woods in Provincetown she had a habit of leaving pencils in trees so she could write down thoughts that surfaced during her walks.
A common Oliver practice is to study nature and project her observations onto human behavior, as illustrated by the following excerpt from Wild Geese:
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
While Oliver seems to posses an inexhaustible supply of poems about nature, she also writes frequently about domestic life. Particularly compelling are her writings on loss and grief in the collection Thirst dedicated to Molly Malone Cook, Oliver’s partner of 40 years, who died of cancer in 2005. In A Pretty Song Oliver distills love and loss to its essence:
From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.
Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?
This isn’t a playground, this is
earth, our heaven, for a while.
Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.
Unlike many female poets of her generation, such as Alice Walker or Marge Piercy whose poems are full of feminist references, Oliver is apolitical, possibly to preserve her privacy. Writing without controversy keeps her safe from unwanted queries from the press or public.
I find reading Mary Oliver infectious. As she pulls me into her private world of sturdy trees, the surf and friendly animals, I feel becalmed, wanting to spend time in nature, wanting to hone my patience to see more, to learn more.
Oliver’s latest book of poetry, Devotion, is a collection of earlier works, including The Gift, which offers a gentle, loving commentary on aging:
Be still, my soul, and steadfast.
Earth and heaven both are still watching
though time is draining from the clock
and your walk, that was confident and quick,
has become slow.
So, be slow if you must, but let
the heart still play its true part.
Love still as once you loved, deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful.
That the gift has been given.