A Tribute To Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver is a dear companion of mine. I keep her books all on a shelf of their own, a body of work that never fails to nourish me. She passed away on January 17, 2019, and though I had never met her, I mourned her as a fine poet who had none the less mentored me in my own writings.
Her style is conversational free verse, accessible enough that I feel I am right there walking beside her in the woods. We both pay attention to the natural world, and love it. We are both humbled by the beautiful mystery; a spirituality sensed in the outer world that reflects something of the inner.
Oliver taught poetry for many years at Bennington College in Vermont, was awarded among other honors the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She lived much of her adult life in Provincetown, MA with her lover Molly Malone Cook. It was her habit to walk early by the coast or in the wild Province lands, carrying a notebook and pencil to capture words as they came. She stands with the ecstatic poets like Rumi, Whitman and Millay, and with naturalists like Emerson and Muir.
At her passing I was surprised to read that her writings had mixed critical reviews. Her poems celebrate the wildness of life, often ecstatically, yet well aware of the inevitability of death and grief. Her poems originate in deep listening, in heart-speak. They are not convoluted with an acrobatic use of words that often makes poetry an elite form of literature. They are poems for the people.
Poetry is a broad field historically, well suited to calls for social justice and expressions of anger against oppression, as well as searches for meaning in a chaotic world. But how telling is it that “praise” poems are considered less worthy than “rage” poems in a media culture where good news is considered less marketable than fear?
If you have not experienced her, “Devotions” is the most recently published selection of Oliver’s poems and a good place to begin. “New and Selected Poems” Volume I and Volume II are also fine collections. Once you are intrigued, there are many individual books of her poetry and prose to explore, like “Dream Work,” “Why I Wake Early,” and “Blue Horses.”
In addition to her books of poetry and prose, Oliver also produced two guides to poetry writing, “A Poetry Handbook,” and “Rules for the Dance.” In “A Poetry Handbook” she says at the end, “Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision—a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.”
Lorraine Lipani is a local artist, and author of “Wild Solitude: love poems.”