“I started early — took my dog” begins an Emily Dickinson poem that speaks to Mary Oliver’s generous life and poetry. She loved her dogs, getting outside early to wander for hours (“Tell me, what else should I have done?” she writes) and, along the way, inviting countless people to love poetry early, or at least earlier than never. Oliver’s writing is a gateway drug to poetry, gently and fiercely cajoling would-be readers into the wilds of the shining earth and living poem.
I can’t remember when I first encountered Oliver’s poetry, but I know this: it wasn’t when I was doing a PhD in poetry despite my comps requiring me to become well-versed on over 50 poets from Beowulf to Sharon Olds. Oliver wasn’t invited to the party of the canon of what was deemed good literature, at least in the early 90s, but then again, I didn’t encounter Rumi there either. Although her spectacular book American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize, her lack of verbal gymnastics and her abundance of accessibility didn’t land her on the reading lists of the graduate courses I took.
Instead (and even better), Oliver’s poems landed on thousands of refrigerator doors and in multitudes of journals, scribbled by people at wit’s end finding solace in the questions she asked, such as “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” and in the advice she gives, such as these lines from “In Blackwater Woods” so many of us hold close to our bones:
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 it go,
to let it go.
Her wisdom is hard-won and home-grown. Born in 1935 in Ohio, she found refuge in the natural world and poetry. She told Maria Shriver in an interview that she had been sexually abused while growing up and couldn’t shake recurring nightmares. Poetry, which she began writing at age 14, gave her a frame for a healing narrative; the earth and sky filled that frame. She set out from home following both, which led her to the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York, where she befriended the poet’s sister, then moved into Millay’s home to organize Millay’s papers.
She dabbled in college, but didn’t earn degrees; likewise, she made it a point never to take on work that might lure her away from poetry, saying, “If you have an interesting job, you get interested in it.” She did a myriad of menial jobs so that she had time and space to write about what she was called to do most, such as in “The Journey,” a poem about finding our own voice as we wander deeper into the world, “determined to do/ the only thing you could do –/ determined to save/ the only life you could save.” She said the natural world was “salvation from her own darkness,” so it’s no surprise that she wrote in ways that helped others do the same. Poetry, she said often, saved her life.
So did love. Sometime in the late 1950s she met photographer Molly Malone Cook, later writing, “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble.” They were in love for over 40 years, living together in Provincetown, MA, a more protected perch for lesbians and artists making a life together, until Malone’s death in 2005. Oliver wrote in Our World of how they had a “rich and abiding confluence” on influence on each other, going on to say: “I don’t think I was wrong to be in the world I was in, it was my salvation from my own darkness. Nor have I ever abandoned it — those early signs that so surely lead toward epiphanies. And yet, and yet, she wanted me to enter more fully into the human world also, and to embrace it, as I believe I have.”
For days and years, Oliver wandered the woods and beaches. What was she searching for? Obviously, as she wrote about in poem after poem, the life force as evident in white moths in flight, a grasshopper in the palm, skunk cabbage up close, and weedy morning glories as totems of beauty. She wrote of her dog (well, all her dogs), a little hawk leaning sideways, and a “black ant traveling/ briskly modestly.” She modeled a life of close observation to recover our vision of what David Abram calls the “more-than-human world,” even if dying and changing all around us, shining a flashlight on the magic inherent in the ordinary as well as a search light on how we’re just one species in “the family of things.” From such awareness, she showed us what Rumi, one of her all-time favorite poets illuminated: “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Or as Oliver put it, “When it’s over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement.”
Although Oliver wrote “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” in “The Summer Day,” her poems resonate as prayer, teaching us what she also says in that poem: “I don know how to pay attention” and how such attention can grow our kindness, strength, acceptance of what we can’t change, and bravery to face what we must. One of my favorite poems of hers, “West Wind #2” sings a song of courage to our “heart’s little intelligence”:
You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But, listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, led your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
Oliver spent her life rowing toward the long falls, yet she was remarkably down to earth. When she came to the University of Kansas in 2010, I got to have dinner with her and other guests the night before she gave a talk. She was gracious, honest, funny, and irreverent, joking with us, “You are all welcome to visit, but you won’t find me” and “This is the first time I’ve been in Kansas, and it occurred to me I had to land in Missouri to do it.” She embodied her writings, both her prose and poetry, without distance or pretense. It was easy to imagine her, back on the Cape, like Dickinson, out early with her dog, skirting the sea, then darting through the woods to pick up one of the pencils she hid in a tree so she could write something down.
“I love the earth so much, and I am so grateful for my single life that it doesn’t scare me that I would give my life back one day. I would give the earth everything,” she said that day in Kansas. Now she has, but on her winding and wobbling trails through this life, she also given the earth to us.
See my blog post from 2010 on “Mary Oliverisms” here, and please consider subscribing to this blog (see “Subscribe to this Blog” on the right-hand side).