Throughout her lifetime of writing poetry, Mary Oliver was largely ignored by the literary establishment.
I have the sense she was humored, discounted, or metaphorically speaking patted on the head for being too plain-spoken. Yet, countless readers have found a home in her words, her style, and her reverence. Some found a greater appreciation for all poetry through her work. Aside from those poets attempting only to appease the publishing gods, shouldn’t we all hope our work brings readers to greater enjoyment of poetry?
For the most part, Oliver led a quiet and unassuming life—preferring serene walks at dawn near Blackwater Pond with her dogs and reveling in the silence of her natural surroundings. Farbeit for the literati to understand much less value those qualities and daily patterns when so many promote an urban ethos of steel, concrete, asphalt, and 24/7 ambient cacophony. Instead, she chose the primal sounds of birds, the surf, the crunch of pine needles underfoot and, yes, crickets. She wrote about all this and God—sometimes veiled and sometimes right up in the front seat. While I, grounded in the also overlooked Midwest and Great Plains, considered her a hero.
She made a practice of carrying in her pocket a 3 x 5 notebook which she hand-stitched (how Dickinsonian) and kept ready to jot snippets as she walked. Once finding herself without a pencil, she returned later to hide a bunch of pencils in the trees and bushes along her path in case that happened again.
Yes, I know she received many honors and accolades including the National Book Award and her fourth book, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. But the cynic in me can’t help but think those were, in part, a nod to pressure from her wide audience of fans and perhaps to mitigate the public rumblings about her being bypassed. The New York Times acknowledged her as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” Forgive me, but that’s a comment about retail book sales not her body of work.
Like so many poets and writers, her departure on January 17, 2019, brought a flood of posthumous praise and, alas, the recognition she deserved in life—although I’m sure she would have modestly declined the fame.
Here are a few quotes of hers I’ve saved over the years:
“I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”
“I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life.”
“Rilke wrote, all companionship is but ‘the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes,’ you have to solve the conundrum of your solitude. Or to take the thoughts and emotions we don’t voice — and know what to make of them.”
“Attention without feeling is only a report.”
From Blue Pastures:
When will you have a little pity for
every soft thing
that walks through the world,
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
And she ends Such Silence with:
I sat on the bench, waiting for something.
An angel, perhaps.
Or dancers with the legs of goats.
No, I didn’t see either. But only, I think, because
I didn’t stay long enough.