The gifts she gave us
An acquaintance made better late than never
Mary Oliver was born on September 10th, 1935. Sadly, It wasn’t until she died in January of 2019 that I got acquainted with her work.
How I had not noticed this prolific, renowned poet, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I was too busy building my career decades ago to notice her volumes of verse. Maybe the contrary virtues of succinctness and emotional depth of her poems hold more interest for me as a mature woman. Maybe it’s because I am more connected to nature and faith now than I was before.
I’m sad that I could have been reading her poems for decades instead of for just a year and a half.
But I am grateful that now — better late than never — she is a part of my literary consciousness, a wise old friend that I return to time after time.
Influenced by the greats
Mary Oliver was born in Maple Heights, Ohio. She had an unhappy childhood, neglected by her mother and sexually abused by her father at a very young age. She often wandered alone in the woods, reading Walt Whitman and scribbling words in notebooks. Oliver later admitted that to escape her dysfunctional family,
“… I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.”
Her salvation became a gift to the rest of us.
The need to escape her home situation was so strong that Mary Oliver wrote to the sister of the recently deceased poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and must have found a common bond. Oliver remembers,
“…When I was still in high school, in 1953, I wrote to Norma Millay, the poet’s sister, asking if I might visit the poet’s home, where Norma Millay was then living. The answer was yes. So, sometimes, the emboldened young fly into their lives. I lived there, off and on, for a good number of years. I don’t know if spirits always haunt their earthly homes, but I know that sometimes they do. Her presence was everywhere.”
The “emboldened” Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver was definitely emboldened. I can’t imagine writing a stranger while I was still in high school and asking to visit the home of a dead poet. Mary Oliver did just that.
Norma Millay, Edna’s sister, lived in Austerlitz, New York, in a home they called Steepletop. Mary Oliver lived there periodically while she helped Norma organize Edna’s papers after the poet had died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 58. Oliver must have absorbed psychic remnants of Edna St. Vincent Millay, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923 for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.
Oliver attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College but left without attaining a degree.
On a visit to Steepletop in the late 1950s, Oliver met Molly Malone Cook, a photographer and a gallery owner — and eventually, Oliver’s literary agent. They lived a quiet life together for more than fifty years in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
After Cook’s death in 2005, Oliver moved to Hobe Sound, Florida, where she died.
Oliver’s body of work
In 1963, Her first collection of poetry, “No Voyage, and Other Poems. Oliver created twenty volumes of poems and several books of prose earning her numerous awards including the 1984 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for American Primitive, the National Book Award, and numerous fellowships and prizes.
The New York Times Obituary of Oliver, who died at the age of 83 from lymphoma, summarized her huge “body of work:”
“…Ms. Oliver often described her vocation as the observation of life, and it is clear from her texts that she considered the vocation a quasi-religious one. Her poems — those about nature as well as those on other subjects — are suffused with a pulsating, almost mystical spirituality…”
“Readers were also drawn to Ms. Oliver’s poems by their quality of confiding intimacy; to read one is to accompany her on one of her many walks through the woods or by the shore.” Poems often came to her on these walks, and she prepared for this eventuality by secreting pencils in the woods near her home .
Intimacy, indeed. I am transported to woods and water when I read Mary Oliver’s work. I see the foxes and flowers, the bears and the birds she describes. The beauty of the world is amplified in her words.
Too much history and not enough heart
Yes, you may be interested in Mary Oliver and might want to know about the connection between her and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Or how Walt Whitman influenced and saved her. Or how many awards she won and what the titles of her books were.
But that’s not what I wanted to convey. I wanted to pay tribute to her on this 10th of September, her birthday. I wanted to spread the joy by providing a few snippets of soul-seeking meaning that come through her poems:
From “Spring” where she compares a black bear arousing from a long hibernation to her own life’s work and boils it down to this:
“There is only one question; how to love this world…”
Or the three-line poem, “We Shake With Joy”:
“We shake with joy; we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body.”
She writes of writing:
“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood. … How people come, from delight or the scars of damage, to the comfort of a poem. … Let me keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.”
There’s a poem called, “The Poetry Teacher,” about how the company of a dog made her students’ poetry better. Another poem entitled “Flare” begins with the line, “Welcome to the silly, comforting poem.” and later admits that “The poem is not the world. It isn’t even the first page of the world. / But the poem wants to flower, like a flower. It knows that much.”
Even the birds inspire poetry in Oliver’s world, as in the little bird depicted in her poem “The Chat:”
“I wish I were the yellow chat down in the thickets
who sings all night, throwing into the air praises
and panhandles, plaints, in curly phrases, half-rhymes,
free verse too, with head-dipping and wing-wringing, with soft breast
rising into the air — …
how I would like to sing to you all night in the dark just like that.”
She penned, in simple but penetrating words, my favorite life philosophy
It’s an oft-quoted verse, so my connection to the lines Mary Oliver crafted in When Death Comes is no no way unique. Those words — that life philosophy — have pulled the heartstrings of thousands of other readers, too.
In celebration of Mary Oliver, I lay before you one of her best-known proclamations:
“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’s 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.”
Maybe, if Mary Oliver is taking a walk along the banks of the great blue yonder, she’ll hear me thanking her for not having simply visited the earth, but for seeing it in all its glory and for reminding me to “love the world.”
As a child, Melissa Gouty was influenced by her paternal grandfather’s frequent recitation of poetry, especially of James Whitcomb Riley and various stanzas from “Casey at Bat,” and “The Village Smithy.” Her maternal grandmother loved words and music and was frequently called upon to give a dramatic rendition of a poem about Jonah and the Whale.
Buy Mary Oliver's Book of Collected Poems, Devotions, at Bookshop.org, where your purchase supports independent bookstores.
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