Writing from the Center: The Poetry of Mary Oliver

This post is adapted from an essay by Victor Klimoski (Ph.D.), a former Director of Lifelong Learning, Saint John’s School of Theology. Dr. Klimoski currently provides consulting services for the Benedictine Center of St. Paul’s Monastery, US.

American poet, Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019)

We recently convened a gathering at the Monastery to celebrate the life and work of poet, Mary Oliver.  She died January 17 at the age of 74, leaving behind a body of work that will sustain generations of readers.  As a poet, Mary Oliver uses her gift for language to invite us into the world with the promise of spontaneous combustion.  For that stirring of the soul into flame occurs when one stops merely looking at the world and begins to see it – to see its wonders, its mysteries, its enchantment.

Readers of Mary Oliver’s poems know that she is not a dewy-eyed romantic.  Her encounter with nature is panoramic.  Amidst the beauty lies decay.  In her poem, “The Ponds,” she takes us for a morning walk to see the lilies on the ponds opening under the rising Sun.  She marvels at their beauty nearly perfect.  Yet, as the poem begins to turn, she asks us to bend closer that we might see the markings of decay. Her point in not the inevitable decline of all living things.  Rather, she seizes upon the tension between beauty and decay, innocence and fault, and between light and darkness to help us sit up, be alert and ready to pay attention.

The Ponds

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe

their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds.

Nobody could count all of them —
the muskrats swimming
among the pads and the grasses
can reach out
their muscular arms and touch

only so many, they are that
rife and wild.
But what in this world
is perfect?

I bend closer and see
how this one is clearly lopsided —
and that one wears an orange blight —
and this one is a glossy cheek

half nibbled away —
and that one is a slumped purse
full of its own
unstoppable decay.

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing —
that the light is everything — that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading.
And I do.

Questions about whether Mary Oliver was a religious believer or simply a secular spiritualist seem futile.  She is unafraid of talking about God or prayer or the soul.  She does so in her capacity as one more interpreter of the reality beyond what is concrete and tangible.  She asks questions.  She poses possible answers.  She ponders and follows the thread of an idea, open to whatever it might reveal.  She knows in ways many do not that the Mystery that engulfs us is always seen through a glass darkly.  We glimpse, perhaps only sense, something more.  And as a student of her environment, Mary Oliver pays attention, for she knows that only in paying attention can one hope to see even if in a veiled way.

As a reader of Mary Oliver poems for many years, I would offer several characteristics I find in her poetry that might encourage others to begin to explore her poems.  I offer excerpts to illustrate those points.

First, Mary Oliver writes poems that are seldom veiled in obscure language or images. She believed that simplicity and clarity had the power to carry a meaning and offer each reader her or his doorway into the poem. From “Six Recognitions of the Lord”:

I know a lot of fancy words.
I tear them from my heart and tongue.
Then I pray.

Second, Oliver writes with a deep sense of humility about her place in a universe of mystery that is eager to call us to life if we can just be still. She keeps herself still that she might receive what the universe has to teach her. From “Wild Geese”:

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.

While it would be foolish to claim the Mary Oliver was a secret oblate (a Christianity term for a lay person who is privately dedicated to God or God’s service), she is clearly imbued with a central characteristic of Benedictine spirituality – attentiveness to the ordinary. Her subject matter is what many of us encounter every day.  She is alert to what she sees this morning as she walks a path into the forest that she has walked a hundred times before. Many of us writers rely on nature as a source for poems.  We tend to focus on what’s pretty or what we first see.  But for Oliver, it is the deeper gaze that expands our souls – not in some sweeping burst of grandeur but by focusing on the slight things that carry great secrets.  From “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It end?”:

I look; morning to night I am never done looking.
Looking, I mean
not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms wide open.
And thinking: maybe something will come,
some shining coil of wind,
or a few leaves from any old tree –
they are all in this too.

Finally, Mary Oliver poems urge patience in the search for living mindfully in the world as it presents itself. In her last (and best) collection of poems entitled Devotions that draws from her vast body of poems, the reader can witness the slow steady evolution of her capacities to see and describe the world she encounters.  It calls for a habit of taking notice, looking up from our damnable phones, pausing in our dash to multitask, and asking ourselves, “What in this moment am I meant to see?” From “Mindful”:

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for–
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world–
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.

Scholars will study Mary Oliver for years to come.  She will be extolled for her brilliance and criticized for what seems her ordinariness.  For those who turn to her poetry for a breath of fresh air and to be invited with her into the natural world, she will always remain a good companion and a wise teacher.  If I were to provide an epitaph that captured Mary Oliver’s spirit as a writer, no better lines could be found than from her poem, “When Death Comes”:

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.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

We can say Amen to that! May her words live on.  May we all live with the experience of being “married to amazement”.

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