Mary Oliver showed us how to take the world into our arms
On cold winter nights, Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “In Praise of Craziness, of a Certain Kind,” her deranged grandmother would spread newspapers on the floor of her porch so that ants could crawl beneath them and keep warm. Such kindness from a woman “with ownership of half her mind—the other half having flown back to Bohemia,” prompted in Oliver the wish that when she, too, was “struck by the lightning of years,” she should prove as loving.
And so it turned out. Love for the small, the meek, the insignificant and the overlooked became a hallmark of the beloved American poet, who died this month, aged 83.
Whether she was writing about finches bathing in a puddle or mussels clinging to the sea rocks of Provincetown, Massachusetts, her home for more than 50 years, whether of oaks or otters, geese or green beans, her affectionate regard cast a glow around these ordinary things, restoring to them the luminous worth that a careless mind misses. And being herself restored in the process.
She devoured the world hungrily, in a frenzy. She ate “the dark hair of the leaves, the rippling bark, the heartwood.” She understood the truth that you must take the world into yourself, even as you give yourself to the world. Love for the world, love for the self—two sides of the same coin.
“I was a bride married to amazement,” she wrote. “I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
It was this love that propelled her into the woods on the first day of spring for 30 years, to hug and kiss an ancient oak she named Noah, and to listen to his leaves tremble in reply. It was love that invited her to spread a blanket in the forest under the stars, and to come to the startling thought that “the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly.” She slept with “nothing between me and the white fire of the stars but my thoughts,” and reported that “by morning I had vanished at least a dozen times into something better.”
The desire to vanish, to become lost again, “comes over me like a vapor,” she wrote in Upstream, her 2016 book of essays. The title is from an occasion in Oliver’s childhood. Her parents had instructed her to walk downstream to get to a certain place. Perversely, Oliver turned upstream. As with Frost’s road less traveled by, that decision made all the difference.
Upstream is where Oliver chose to walk. Upstream of conventional wisdom and socially acceptable pursuits, away from the “heavy coats” of adult responsibility. “Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity,” she wrote. “May I stay forever in the stream.”
That is exactly what she did, feeling its strong current, plumbing its depths, thrilling to its babble and roar. “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” she wrote, and she was the epitome of both. Her work, she said, consisted of “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”
Hers is a poetry of intimacy and connection, in the tradition of Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins and Thoreau—to all of whom she has been compared. In common with those writers, little in the living world lay outside the range of her interest and notice. As Thoreau discovered on Mt Ktaadn, what matters is contact. Contact!
But it was Whitman, not Thoreau, who was her first and lifelong inspiration. She lit her poetic candle at his lamp, she wrote in Upstream, and emulated the “oracular tenderness” with which he viewed the world. His most important lesson for her, though, was that the poem is a temple—“a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing.”
An antipathy to intellectualizing is a feature of her work. She was a champion of clear thinking and plain speaking. She also possessed a profound respect for the gifts of the subconscious. The subconscious bestows its offerings only on those who can be trusted, she wrote in Rules of the Dance, a handbook on how to read and write verse. Trust is earned through the demonstration of effort and reliability: proof to the subconscious that you come with serious intent.
Even that is insufficient. There must be loyalty to the transcendent inner vision. “Of this there can be no question—creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity,” she wrote. “He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home.” She claimed that the “most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
She made sure she gave the world every chance to speak. Why else did she take those daily walks through forests and along seashores year on year? Who can ever predict where and when mystery will descend, turning water into wine? “One must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all our conscious discipline, will come where they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings.”
Dawn was her special time. She wanted always to be present at “the opening of the door of day,” and wrote that “no one who loves dawn, and is abroad to see it, could be a stranger to me.” Once, in pine woods between darkness and first light, Oliver was sitting on the ground when two deer saw her, decided she was without harm, and walked towards her. One leaned forward and—oh, wonder!—nuzzled her hand.
“What can my life bring me that could exceed that brief moment?” Oliver asks in her poem “The Place I Want to Get Back To.” Indeed, in 20 years of walking in the same woods every day, it never happened again. “Such gifts, bestowed, can’t be repeated,” she writes. Then she adds: “If you want to talk about this come to visit. I live in the house near the corner, which I have named Gratitude.”
Gratitude was not just the house, it was the life. Hers was an open-handed, non-grasping way of being in the world—though that was a lesson she had to learn. In a poem about swans in flight, she admits to the thought: “How could I help but wish that one of them might drop a white feather that I should have something in my hand to tell me that they were real?”
I know that impulse—the desire to have some keepsake of the transfiguring moment, the grace that brushes us with its wing in passing. This is not possible, writes Oliver. It is foolish. “What we love, shapely and pure, is not to be held, but to be believed in,” she writes, as the swans vanish “into the unreachable distance.”
Though her subject is the intimacy of contact and connection to living things, there is nothing saccharine about her sentiments. Grief, prayer and terror were as much a part of her life as contemplation and joy. She faced the darkness eye to eye, and brought it into her work as an equal partner with the lightness of being.
How often I have leaned on her four-line poem, which she said came to her in a dream:
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
She called the poem “The Uses of Sorrow.”
Everything connected, everything to be welcomed, everything with its place and its use. Such knowledge made her feel beautiful, she wrote in Upstream: “[T]his is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”
What has made Oliver’s poems therapeutic for so many of her readers is the constant, gentle segue from the delight of the world’s manifestations, granted in myriad moments of sight and sound, to deeper currents of meaning.
Many times I have walked among trees and thought of her response when considering their perfection and her imperfection:
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
The trees in their turn offer the hope she lacks.
. . . “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
Oliver never disparaged or dismissed the healing gifts of nature. With deep charity, she invites us to share her vulnerability and hope:
What, in the earth world,
is there not to be amazed by
and to be steadied by
and to cherish?
Oh, my dear heart,
my own dear heart,
full of hesitations,
questions, choice of directions,
look at the world.
The world for her was not a nature documentary or a Disney movie. Her creaturely encounters were not for her information or amusement. Rather, the black bear rising from hibernation and coming down the mountain was a “dazzling darkness” that drenched her consciousness and invades her very soul. “All day I think of her . . . her worldlessness, her perfect love.”
In an imaginary conversation with an otter, it is the otter who does most of the talking, who “wonders, morning after morning, that the river is so cold and fresh and alive, and still I don’t jump in.”
If this sounds anthropomorphic, it is not. It is a radical expansion of the pathetically limited terms of engagement that exist between humans and non-humans in Western thought: the denial of sentience, the objectification all that is not human—the outcome of an obsession with rationality over other ways of knowing. Oliver considers it a form of wretchedness “to believe only in what can be proven.” She describes moving past the merely rational, past the provable, as “probably the most serious inquiry of my life.”
Nor is nature merely an actor in the poet’s creative drama. “I would not talk about the wind, and the oak tree, and the leaf on the oak tree, but on their behalf,” Oliver writes in “Winter Hours.” “I would talk about the owl and the thunderworm and the daffodil and the red-spotted newt as a company of spirits, as well as bodies. I would say that the fox stepping out over the snow has nerves as fine as mine, and a better courage. I would write praise poems that might serve as comforts, reminders, or even cautions if needed, to wayward minds and unawakened hearts.”
Awakened hearts are sorely needed in these bleak times for planet Earth. In “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness,” Oliver writes that if our love of the world is true, then hope must be our anthem.
So let us go on
though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.
Yes, much that is sweet is gone or going, but Oliver’s poems will continue to pour their syrup on sorrowing souls. We will go on.