Mary Oliver Taught Us How to Live in This World

Last week, I learned of Mary Oliver’s death from a friend who lives across the country. She sent me a text about the beloved poet’s passing, and it felt as though a light had gone out in the world.

This friend and I met in Santa Fe, where I bought my first book of Mary Oliver’s poetry. I was at a retreat for writers, and I had the book sitting on the lunch table beside me. We were supposed to be spending the retreat in silence, but one of the other writers saw the book, and the whole table lit up.

The writer grabbed the book in a flurry of excitement and flipped to the poem, “Wild Geese.”

“I teach this poem every year,” she said in a whisper. It was obvious it was dear to her heart.

I read:

You do not have to be good

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

The writer in question taught at an all-girls Catholic school. She was using Mary Oliver — a queer Pulitzer Prize­–winning poet — to teach the girls in her class about claiming their power and finding their place in the world.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

This is what we all have to learn.

Mary Oliver’s poems are almost exclusively about nature. There are few humans in her poems except as observers. Over and over she teaches us how to watch, how to be astonished, and how to fall in love with the world. This, in essence, is what being a writer — what being a human — is all about.

As I was reading about Mary Oliver in The Times, I found myself shaking my head. The obituary described her poem as having a “pedagogical, almost homiletic quality.” This, it says, combined with her “relative brevity” . . . I stopped reading right there.

Mary Oliver’s poems weren’t meant to be described — and certainly not in the crusty language of a New York Times obituary writer. They were meant to be experienced and deeply, deeply felt.

Mary Oliver was the people’s poet. None of her poems are fancy or hard to understand. But they offer careful instructions on how to live in this world.

All weekend, I mourned her a little. But instead of reading her poems as a way to honor her, I took a walk in the mountains and just breathed in the world. I was with the trees and the snow and the mountains — and all the little critters who left only their footprints.

Oliver is not the sort of poet that makes you want to dress in black and smoke cigarettes in a dark café. She is the type of poet who makes you want to go out into the woods, sprawl out on a carpet of pine needles, and feel the earth beneath your body.

If you haven’t read her yet, you are exceedingly lucky. Get yourself a copy of one of her collections and prepare to be humbled, amazed, and heartbroken.

Photo by Ales Krivec

 

 

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