Thanks to daily deals on Amazon, I discovered two Mary Oliver books that I otherwise wouldn’t have purchased at full price1. Both are a collection of essays and poetry released this past two decades. These essays and poems have previously appeared in various journals and books. Reading Mary Oliver is like reading sacred scripture. She forces me to stop and consider my day and to pay attention to the littlest things. She doesn’t tell this to the reader directly, of course, but by being the person who pays obeisance to the world, to its invisible creatures, she makes you do the same.
Reading the first one2, I realized that Mary Oliver can be regarded as one of the American Transcendentalists. I hadn’t thought of her that way, and she doesn’t describe herself that way either. But watching her examine Hawthrone and Emerson, it’s obvious she’s couldn’t be anything else. You become what you admire.
I cherish the second book3 more than the first, because in it she goes through her writing process. She knows what she wants from her poetry.
“What I want to describe in my poems is the nudge, the prick of the instant, the flame of appreciation that shoots from my heels to my head when compass grass bends its frilled branches and draws a perfect circle on the cold sand; or when the yellow wasp comes, in fall, to my wrist and then to my plate, to ramble the edges of a smear of honey.”
She has rules and systems to compose poems. These rules have been accreting over a life time.
“I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered. I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader’s part in an implicit author-reader pact. Last but not least, I want the poem to have a pulse, a breathiness, some moment of earthly delight. (While one is luring the reader into the enclosure of serious subjects, pleasure is by no means an unimportant ingredient.)”
“Morning, for me, is the time of best work. My conscious thought sings like a bird in a cage, but the rest of me is singing too, like a bird in the wind. Perhaps something is still strong in us in the morning, the part that is untamable, that dreams willfully and crazily, that knows reason is no more than an island within us.”
Writing as a vocation is a spiritual endeavor.
“Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the recognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude. Such interest nourishes me beyond the finest compendium of facts. In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.”
The last line is hard to disagree with. As even the most idealist among us would be forced to acknowledge, it’s the best stories that win. What’s history after all?
My favorite Mary Oliver poem remains the much celebrated “The Summer Day”. It’s not part of the above collections, and I really can’t be writing about Mary Oliver without reproducing it.
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?
– Mary Oliver
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