I am not going to claim that I know much about poetry. I vaguely recall liking Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe, and the poetry of Ogden Nash and E. E. Cummings when I was in grade school. Beyond that, I don’t think I could name one living poet.
So when I heard of the death today of Mary Oliver, the name was not familiar. But as I started to come across more and more tributes to her, I began to realize she was one of the greatest poets of her generation.
From Wikipedia: Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019) was an American poet who won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2007 The New York Times described her as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” Influenced by both Whitman and Thoreau, she is known for her clear and poignant observances of the natural world. Her creativity was stirred by nature, and Oliver, an avid walker, often pursued inspiration on foot. Her poems are filled with imagery from her daily walks near her home. Oliver is also known for her unadorned language and accessible themes (in other words, she wrote poems that regular people like me could understand.)
Writer Ruth Franklin puts it another way, “Mary Oliver isn’t a difficult poet. Her work is incredibly accessible, and I think that’s what makes her so beloved by so many people. It doesn’t feel like you have to take a seminar in order to understand Mary Oliver’s poetry. She’s speaking directly to you as a human being.”
So after reading such tributes, I had to go and read some of her poetry. Here are two I especially liked:
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Those last two lines are among her most well known, and according to the Chicago Tribune, if you search for Mary online, you’ll find T-shirts and wall art emblazoned with those words.
The other poem I liked seemed fitting for today, since it deals with death:
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
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.
Mary Oliver clearly did more than just visit this world. The world and nature surely made an impression on her, and she left her mark on the world through her words and observations.
*image from LitHub