The poet of awe

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Every morning, Mary Oliver rises before dawn and opens the door of her house in Pronvicetown, Massachusetts. There she stands, watching the sun draw its lazy arch across the sky, and waits for the words to come.

And the words come, one by one, to her sharpened pencil; excited and tremulous, as to a date.

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

(Why I wake early)

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Then she takes her little notebook, stuffs it into her back pocket, and walks into the wood. Alone. This is how she does it. This is how she’s always done it, even when Molly lived (Molly Mallone Cook, the photographer with whom she shared her life and her love for four decades). And for good reason. 

“Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore
unsuitable.

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.

Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.

If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love
you very much.”

(How I go to the woods)

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Mary Oliver (75) is a poet. An unusual one. Not only has she been bestowed with the highest honors in her genre (the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award among them), she is also that rare phenomenon: a best-selling poet, something of a contradiction. No less important, she is a confidant and friend to thousands of devoted readers, and the legitimate heir of the great nature writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau.

Her verses have often been described as “a poetry of praise”, something she does not argue, but rather reaffirms with every new creation; every time she sings, once again, to the heron in the pond, the fox scurrying across the field, the oak and the sunflower. It could just as easily be called ”a poetry of awe”, since her verses radiate a never ending surprise and a bone-deep appreciation for the world and its mysteries.

Her devotion is not lofty and ethereal; on the contrary, it spills over in earthliness and sensuality and grit. Neither is it artifically sweet. “Do not call this world adorable, nor useful; that’s not it,” she says in “Where does the dance begin, and where does it end?“. Instead, she defines it thus: “It’s frisky, and a theater for more than fair winds / The eyelash of lightening is neither good nor evil. / The struck tree burns like a pillar of gold”.

Her spirituality without creed or temples leaves no one unattended; believers and disbelievers, mystics and cynics, the mighty minds and the innocent: she sings to all, about all, for all. Neither does she hide the fact that, every time she praises the flutter of the leaves, the eyes of the deer or the lowly mosquito, her song is prayer, meditation, elegy.

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In an unusual interview with Maria Shriver in 2011, Oliver shares one of the motivations behind her poetry: “I am not very hopeful about the Earth remaining as it was when I was a child. It’s already greatly changed. But I think when we lose the connection with the natural world, we tend to forget that we’re animals, that we need the Earth. And that can be devastating. Wendell Berry is a wonderful poet, and he talks about this coming devastation a great deal. I just happen to think you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So I try to do more of the “Have you noticed this wonderful thing? Do you remember this?”

Breaking with her usual reserve, the poet shares anecdotes such as this one: “In Provincetown now, there’s a little story that is sweet. They say if Mary is taking a walk, and she begins to walk slower and slower, and finally she’s standing still scribbling, you know it was a successful walk”.

“So many people think poets are tortured souls,” the interviewer interjects.

Oliver responds: “Well, we went through a whole period of confessional poets. And I think a lot of people—certainly Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—got therapy mixed up with the work they were doing, and that’s a shame. I may be wrong, but it seems like they felt they could heal themselves through writing, and it didn’t work. I don’t usually mess around with what makes me unhappy when I’m writing. I want to write poems that will comfort, maybe amuse, enliven other people. I don’t mean that the world is all great and wonderful. But I’m careful to—I try to keep the emphasis on the good and the hopeful”.

Nonetheless, in her rich bibliography there are many quiet references to painful events in her life, like having been rejected as a child. In one of her most beloved poems, she invites her readers to make peace with their pain and embrace their identity.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
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.

 

Her most cited poem is probably The Summer Poem, reproduced a thousand times in sacred and secular contexts alike, by virtue of that memorable last line, that summons to wake up, wave away all fears and dive into one’s life.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

A rich question to ask every morning, like Mary, as one heads out the door. Before or after greeting the sun.

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