Arts & Culture: We Should All Read Mary Oliver
As is the curse that befalls many young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed literature enthusiasts, I discovered one of my favorite writers a year after her death. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver slipped under my radar for a long time, though when I came across her poetry during the pandemic, there was something familiar about it. Her poems, I realized later, did exactly what poems are supposed to do. They spoke to something I had never been able to verbalize, some deep sensitivity that was not unique to only me, but that belonged to Oliver’s hundreds of thousands of devoted readers. “She just gets me,” I texted a friend recently, along with the link to a poem titled “Invitation.”
Most, if not all, of Oliver’s poems use the natural world as a starting point for her broader social and philosophical observations. Her poems begin outside. Oliver’s relationship with nature goes beyond respect; it is a reverence, a profound sense of awe. As described by Ruth Franklin of The New Yorker, “For America’s most beloved poet, paying attention to nature is a springboard to the sacred.” She records her observations of her environment in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with stunning precision, and implores readers to do the same, wherever they may be. But it is not enough to merely notice the beautiful and complex natural processes that occur around oneself; for Oliver, everything contains a lesson. Watching a swan take flight inspires an almost spiritual moment of contemplation, a walk through the changing autumn forest becomes a meditation on the passage of time. These are just two examples of what is a limitless body of beautiful, heartbreaking and tender poetry.
But when I step outside Brookdale Residence Hall, I see an endless amount of office buildings, coffee shops selling overpriced drinks and men and women walking frantically down gum-covered sidewalks. It is almost as though Mary Oliver and I occupy two different Americas. Mine is obsessed with consumption, fixated on racing through every day, while Oliver’s is bright and green and peaceful, an oasis where the chirping of birds can bring about a work of art. What can Mary Oliver — “America’s most beloved poet” — tell me about my world? From what I’ve read, she doesn’t know much about concrete jungles, only natural ones.
What I realized recently, and what has struck me about Oliver’s poetry since I first discovered it, is that she paid attention. She noticed everything, even the things that seem insignificant. She walked through this world in a state of awareness that I wish to emulate. This is exactly what Mary Oliver can tell me about my world: the importance of slowing down, of looking at the pigeon — did you know that they have iridescent feathers? — the baby in the passing stroller, the shifting trees in Central Park. Her poems, most of which are focused on the question of how we are meant to live, offer solace to those of us who are exasperated by this frenzied age. The answer is simple: By paying attention to the world around us, we can learn and grow.
Oliver’s gentle moral conclusions are simple yet shockingly profound. Her vast descriptions of nature are reminders that we are mere inhabitants, not lords. Revoke your ego, she seems to say, then pause to watch and listen to what is happening around you. This should not be an unfamiliar concept for us, as Judaism views humility as paramount. As the Ramban writes in his Iggeret HaRamban, “I shall explain how you should become accustomed to the practice of humility in your daily life. Let your voice be gentle, and your head bowed. Let your eyes be turned earthwards and your heart heavenwards.” And mankind’s responsibility to respect and preserve its home is not a foreign idea either: “The land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land” (Vayikra 25:23-24).
I return once more to my central question: What can Mary Oliver tell me about my world? For starters, to keep a notebook and pen on me at all times. To be patient, aware, and mindful. To hold myself accountable, the way her voice often does to her readers in the final lines of her poems, and to examine this life that I am very privileged to have. If you can, I suggest taking a trip to your favorite bookstore and selecting a volume of Oliver’s poetry, or typing her name into any search engine. What you find may make you laugh, cry or smile. Maybe even all three at once.
Photo Caption: But it is not enough to merely notice the beautiful and complex natural processes that occur around oneself; for Oliver, everything contains a lesson.
Photo Credit: Erik Witsoe / Unsplash