These lines from Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes” took on new meaning when I read them on the afternoon of January 17, 2019. I’d read the poem before, but time has a way of changing your perception of what you read. In this case, I was re-reading one of Oliver’s most well-known poems about mortality just hours after learning that she, my favorite poet, had died from lymphoma at the age of 83.
The timing was eerie, too. Around the same time last week, I started working on a similar tribute to my favorite author of all time, Ursula K. Le Guin, who had recently passed away. (Oliver died 5 days before the first anniversary of Le Guin’s passing.) So, naturally, I’ve been drawing comparisons between the relationships I have with their work. And I remembered one difference that might surprise some people: While Le Guin’s stories resonated with me right away, it took a few years for me – a fantasy fan and a poet in equal measure – to fall in love with Oliver’s poems.
“For All They Said, / I Could Not See the Waterfall…”
I first learned of Mary Oliver when I won the Poetry Award at my college’s Awards Night for graduating students. The English & Creative Writing staff presented me with a plaque and three poetry books, including both volumes of Oliver’s New and Selected Works. Since Oliver was completely new to me, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of themes, style, or subject matter. Until I opened Volume 1 … and found poem after poem about the natural world, with titles such as “Morning Poem,” “Rose, Late Summer,” and “Hummingbird Pauses at the Trumpet Vine.”
My overriding thought was, “Oh. Nature poetry. That’s boring.”
In my defense, I wasn’t mature enough to give Oliver’s work a fair chance then. I was 22 years old, a college grad worrying about getting my first job and a young poet with a skewed perception of her craft. Music and song lyrics influenced my poems more than poetry itself did. I relied on abstract imagery and metaphors to describe my feelings and experiences in my work.
But swans? Sunrises? Grasshoppers? Flowers? The Sara I was then didn’t see what was “cool” about writing poetry on those subjects. So why read those kinds of poems?
“One Day You Finally Knew / What You Had To Do, and Began…”
A couple years passed. I continued writing poetry and, at the encouragement of one of my former college professors, began submitting work for publication. In 2011, after moving out of my parents’ house into my condo, I was unpacking a box when I came across the two Oliver books. I’d never finished reading either one. And though I remembered why her poems hadn’t appealed to me before, I figured it was time to give them another chance.
That second chance was a wholly different experience. Through that deep read of Volumes 1 and 2, I realized how narrow-minded and mistaken I’d been about Oliver’s poetry. Yes, she wrote primarily about nature. But when you pay attention to the words she used and the emotions conveyed, her poems are about so much more.
Love, joy, sadness, and gratitude. Mortality, courage, identity, and mindfulness. I realized that Oliver’s poems are a way of experiencing the world with eyes wide open, senses attuned, and a heart so full of feeling that it fills your own to bursting. Her simple yet precise word choices make her brief descriptions easy to imagine, her insights breathlessly powerful, and the questions she asks you, the reader, about your life almost terrifying to answer (in a good way). Her distinct style and presence also translates well to topics outside of nature, from travel and relationships to poverty and sexual abuse.
When I finished both books, there was no question in my mind: I needed more of Oliver’s poetry in my life. And I’ve been steadily collecting more of it ever since.
“Every Day / I See or Hear / Something / That More or Less / Kills Me / With Delight”
It’s hard for me to say how much Oliver’s words and wisdom have affected my life. Her work has definitely influenced my tastes in poetry, and the subjects I write about and the causes I’m passionate about are very much aligned with hers.
But do I write poems to emulate Oliver? No. Do I love nature, mindfulness, and spirituality because she did, too? Not necessarily. I think her poems opened the door, then life shaped my own appreciation from there.
I’ve blogged before about my experiences with situational depression and, more recently, anxiety. The latter hasn’t been formally diagnosed, but the symptoms I’ve had – cyclical thoughts, shortness of breath, racing pulse, loss of one’s grip on reality – make it difficult to be anything else. I’m managing it much better now, though, and it’s probably because I’ve created a mindfulness practice. One that involves, among other activities, a daily gratitude practice and taking walks outside.
I’m not an outdoorsy person. Yet there’s something calming and life-affirming about being in nature. I love the flowers and trees, the fresh colors and smells, the bird calls and the sun on my skin, and the unexpected surprises I find along the way. A walk outside is a reminder to not just be aware your surroundings, but also to be aware of everything. To see the everyday and the seemingly insignificant as events to cherish forever. To not simply be grateful for each and every moment, but to actually revel in that gratitude.
Walking outdoors has also an incredible boon for my creativity. Whenever I’m stuck on a poem, story idea, or blog post, I go for a walk if the weather permits. By the time I return to my writing space, I’ve almost always found a solution to get the words flowing again. I might even have ideas for new pieces to write. In fact, my walks have helped me find ideas to turn into poems. (“Gifts,” which Amethyst Review published last year, is a great example.)
What does this have to do with Mary Oliver? Well, through the poems I revisited and the many articles and tributes I read in the days after her death, I remembered two things I’d read before about Oliver but forgotten until then. First, she frequently took long walks in nature. Second, many of her own poems came to her during these walks.
I sat back in my chair when I read this. In a way, I felt like I’d been reading about my own poetry-writing process. And it made me wonder, “Did Mary’s work influence me to do the same? Or is this just a coincidence?”
Who knows, really?
“Tell Me, What Is It You Plan to Do / With Your One Wild and Precious Life?”
I do know this for certain, though: Reading Oliver’s poems has illuminated the way I want to live my own life. With attentiveness, thankfulness, and kindness toward others and toward the natural world. With an appreciation for the little things and the desire to see everything, everyone, and every moment as special. And, maybe most importantly, with gentleness and compassion toward myself.
I guess this is my answer to the question in the header above, which comes from Oliver’s “The Summer Day.” I want to live my best life and have it be full of the people, places, passions, and values that matter to me. It’s a big reason why I’ve started my own freelance editing and literary coaching business. And, either by coincidence or through some form of osmosis, some aspects of my approach just so happen to echo Mary Oliver’s.
Which brings me back to the day she passed away. I was scheduled to read my work at an open mic night at a local bookstore. And I did, with a heavy heart. Before the open mic night, though, I arrived at the bookstore early so I could buy a copy of any Mary Oliver book available that I didn’t own yet.
When I reached the register with A Poetry Handbook, my throat swelled a little. The bookstore staff had “built” a small tribute to Oliver there, with copies of her book Blue Horses and a quote from one of her poems at the top.
I thanked the bookseller for this. She said it was necessary, since she too was a fan of Oliver’s work. This gave me the heart to say, “It’s always sad when anyone passes away, even at an old age. But when you read Mary’s poems, you get the sense that she lived a long, happy, and fulfilling life. The best life she could have wanted.”
It’s a long way of circling back to the opening excerpt and saying that, yes, Mary Oliver didn’t simply visit this world. ❤
Are you a fan of Mary Oliver’s poems? Which ones are your favorites? What impact has her work had on your life?