Frequently described as America’s “most beloved poet”, who was “often quoted but rarely interviewed”, Mary Oliver died at the age of 83 in her Florida home on Thursday. Her literary executor said the cause of death was lymphoma cancer. The most fitting epitaph one can imagine for Oliver’s life and career can perhaps be culled from a poem in her own hand, When Death Comes, where she writes:
“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.”
Her readers cherished her for her characteristic clarity of language and evocative imagery. Oliver’s works pulsate with gentle kindness – a warm spiritual forgiveness directed with equal sincerity at both the self and the world. In an interview with Krista Tippett for NPR, regarding the presence of the self in her poems, she had said, “[m]any of the poems are ‘I did this. I did this. I saw this.’ I wanted them – the ‘I’ to be the possible reader.”
Oliver celebrated nature and the importance of prayer through keen observation and quiet contemplation. The places she had lived in and the natural world she witnessed in her daily life sent deep roots into her poems. She wrote sentences that were bright, airy and full of light – an unanticipated result of dark childhood trauma brought on by parental neglect and sexual abuse.
These early experiences of trauma were to shape her in ways that made her view the world with a compassion and understanding that was unparalleled by her peers. In a poem titled The Uses of Sorrow, she ruminated: “someone I loved once gave me / a box full of darkness. // It took me years to understand / that this, too, was a gift.”
Elevating the mundane
Having grown up in Ohio, Oliver lived and wrote for decades in Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, where she cohabited with her partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, and finally, in Hobe Sound in southern Florida, which was also to eventually be her last place of residence. Her literary influences included Walt Whitman, Edna St Vincent Millay, Rumi’s model of Sufi spirituality, and touches of ee cummings and Rainer Maria Rilke.
In the process of skipping classes in school to read Whitman in the woods as a precocious child, exploring nature near their home at Cape Cod, “trying very hard to love the mangroves” in Florida, the empathic alertness to the natural world that she gained and her deep sensitivity to the condition of being human showed up evocatively in her writing. Attention to detail, elevating the mundane and making the unnoticed fascinating were elements of her study.
A blade of grass, the rising sun which spread light over the fields, the shenanigans of a female grasshopper were the subjects that held interest for her. She wrote about them without metrical or expressive calisthenics, composing poems primarily in blank verse and linear, accessible sentences. Championing clear, precise ways of writing, she had once remarked that “a lot of poets writing now...sort of tap dance through it (crafting verse)”.
Mary Oliver’s poems are full of nuance, colour and contradiction. Many of them read like prayers and yet she offers humbly in one: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” In 2012, some years after her partner’s death, she confessed to feeling great sorrow over humanity’s lack of care for the world in light of global warming and climate crisis.
“...The woods that I loved as a child are entirely gone,” she said. “The woods that I loved as a young adult are gone. The woods that most recently I walked in are not gone, but they’re full of bicycle trails”...“And this is happening to the world,” she continues, “and I think it is very very dangerous for our future generations, those of us who believe that the world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, but it is in itself an act of some kind of spiritual thing.”
An ever-growing readership
Between 1963 and 2017, Oliver produced over 30 collections of poems and four books of non-fiction. During this prolific career, she was granted the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, the National Book Award of the USA in 1992, and, in 1998, the prestigious Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement. Her other achievements include winning the Alice Fay di Castaglona Award, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
However, Mary Oliver wasn’t recognised for her talents. Stephen Burt wrote in a review of her poetry collection, Why I Wake Early, “Oliver now risks monotony...[She] should continue to please those who seek, in poetry, uncomplicated wonder and spiritual consolation; other readers may find her new work just more of the same.” But such negative critical reception has done little to diminish her wide and varied readership.
Despite the occasional jibe directed at her poetic style, and questions raised about the seriousness of her intent, her audience has steadily grown over the years to include those who have sought quietude, meaningful simplicity, and narratives of the natural world in 21st century literature.
If you’ve ever chosen to follow art and literature boards on Pinterest, literary handles on Instagram, or rummaged through Etsy for framed inspiration for a study wall, then you are certain to have stumbled across the ending lines from arguably her most famous poem, A Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”. Notwithstanding the apparent amenability towards commodification, Mary Oliver’s quietly luminous poetry gave many introverted literary-minded book lovers a sense of kinship and belonging in a world beset with harshness and sharp edges. Her words have lifted the flagging spirits of characters in life and fiction equally. Paul Chowder, the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s novel The Anthologist scribbles in his copy of New and Selected Poems: Volume 1, “Mary Oliver is saving my life”. No matter how greatly aggrieved by her passing, at a time when kind words and empathy are more absent than ever before in the map of world politics and literature, it is safe to say that her devoted readers will continue to live by the words she had made the motto of her own life: “Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.”