The poet Mary Oliver died last week, at the age of 83.
She was winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, with 20 published volumes of poetry and prose. Her work has touched thousands with its simply stated, utterly profound observations on life, the natural world, and the spirit.
Bear with me here... I know that for some, the mere utterance of the word poetry conjures up tortured hours spent in high school English classes, trying to decode some famous dead writer's poems.As someone who spent 30 years teaching literature to adults, many of whom would rather have had a root canal than even come near a poem, I understand your pain.
This poet is different.
Oliver believed that poetry should use simple, direct language. "To be understood," she said, "it must be clear. It mustn't be fancy."
Feeling a bit reassured? Read on!
I was introduced to Mary Oliver's poetry when my friend Gretchen (yes, that Gretchen!), who has never enjoyed poetry, forwarded one of Oliver's short poems to me because she thought I might like it. Here is the poem:
It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the door
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Boom. I was hooked. I had hit the trifecta-Poetry, Nature, and God-in one short poem. Since then, my love for Oliver's work has grown, to the extent that it's now a regular part of my daily devotions. Her attention to the tiniest details of the natural world, combined with a deep connection to the spiritual, never fails to speak to me. And I believe that her poetry has something for everyone.
Do you, like me, seek God outdoors, in the wild woods or the fields? These lines are from her poem, "Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?"
There are things you can't reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.
The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing
from the unreachable top of the tree.
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.
Not all of her poetry is about the spirit of God found in nature. She also writes of the many blessings, and the many challenges that come with simply being alive.
If you're like me, a person who tends to worry about things that are mostly beyond our control, here's a poem for us.
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
If you have experienced the terrible pain of grief (and who has not?), read this excerpt from "In Blackwater Woods":
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.
So many poems I could share with you, but... enough. I hope that these words have lit a spark of recognition within you, that they have perhaps put into words something you have known or felt, as they do for me. If you Google Mary Oliver, you will find dozens of her poems online. If you would like to hold one of her books in your hands, I recommend you start with Thirst.
I leave you with these few words from her poem "Sometimes," words that have become something of a credo for me.
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Good-bye, Mary. Thank you for so generously sharing a life spent looking for and finding God, even when life is hard.
And may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Lou Ann Karabel