On Mary Oliver

This is not an obituary. Already, twenty-four hours since news of Mary Oliver's passing reached us, there have been many good ones.

Margalit Fox (who causes me to yearn for collected obituaries, like one might do for a book of short stories or essays) wrote the New York Times' coverage:

Her poems, which are built of unadorned language and accessible imagery, have a pedagogical, almost homiletic quality. It was this, combined with their relative brevity, that seemed to endear her work to a broad public, including clerics, who quoted it in their sermons; poetry therapists, who found its uplifting sensibility well suited to their work; composers, like Ronald Perera and Augusta Read Thomas, who set it to music; and celebrities like Laura Bush and Maria Shriver.

This is not a remembrance. Summer Brennan, who studied with Oliver at Bennington, wrote a fine one for the Paris Review:

Mary was, I think, a fundamentally American poet. There was a view in her poems and in her person of an America that was both beautiful and profoundly lonely. She was not blind to the country’s unthinkably cruel and violent past; nor did she imagine the natural world that she loved so much as an empty Eden. She saw it, very clearly, as a treasure stolen from someone else.

This is not a eulogy. You can turn to Twitter for them in micro, from Hilary Clinton, Ava DuVernay, Madonna, and many other less notable folks who just loved Oliver the poet.

Poets die, and not all are eulogized. Not all are remembered. Few are read as widely as Oliver, and for some that was enough to dismiss her.

Her work is spartan, simple, rhythmic, sometimes bordering on sing-song, but never too clever. It is observational, direct. Her poems are as they lay, not intending a labyrinth, not requiring a degree or footnotes. They're akin to looking at a dried leaf each morning and taking note of what you neglected to see in it before.

They are, then, meditative. Her most common subject, nature, perhaps casts her into a genre unpopular and neglected as passé. Her nature, however, is the nature of movement through the world, of seeing and processing the tiny story you find circumnavigating Seward Park, say. It is observational and in a moment.

She was a superb craftswoman with a deep appreciative knowledge of form. She was a teacher, who brought her own intense curiosity and craft to teaching. To such poets who strive to be contemporary, she offered this, in her wonderful lesson in craft, A Poetry Handbook:

Most of what calls itself contemporary is built, whether it knows it or not, out of a desire to be liked. It is created in imitation of what already exists and is already admired. There is, in other words, nothing new about it. To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air.

She often, especially in her most popular works, drew on a universal voice of authority — a voice inexperienced writers (men, usually) misunderstand and trip over, like they've tied their laces cross-shoe. In Oliver's hands the text evoked devotional work, biblical directness and guidance, and rang true in a direct and clever way. It was voiced with breath.

Oliver hinted at her childhood, of sexual violence and terror. "It was a very bad childhood for everybody," she told Krista Tippett, "every member of the household, not just myself I think. And I escaped it, barely. With years of trouble."

Did she earn the voice through writing her way out of that trouble? Or was it from the craft she developed a surety of step that allowed the voice? Was it the perspective of being an out lesbian, partnered for forty years to Molly Malone Cook, during a time when all queer people were socially outcast?

My father was a minister. I am quite sure that he quoted Mary Oliver in at least one sermon. He loved poetry and read widely, and perhaps if not carefully, then with an intuition for work that lifts off the page. He peppered his themes with verse that illustrated or illuminated that which his own words only supported.

When he was dying we read him a lot of poetry. When he was too sick to read to himself, we would take turns from a collected works that contained Oliver's "Wild Geese".

Thankfully, he did not suffer greatly. But if he was restless, and especially when he did not feel very close to the surface of this world, I would sit in the study next to his hospital bed and open the book, the rhythmic suck and clatter of the oxygen concentrator in the corner, and he would be dreaming, moaning, expressing an oncoming death.

"You do not have to be good," I would say, and he would settle, immediately. I probably read that one poem dozens of times in the last week of his life. Not always to him, because its first line echoed in my head in a loop, like an ear worm, and I found myself picking up the book and reading it over and again.

Other poems, some humorous, were better when he was more present. But what fun was the humor when he wouldn't chuckle? What fun was cleverness when he wouldn't acknowledge the trick with that particular smile in his eyes? Other poems felt laden and complicated, but Oliver's work was direct and extremely present.

"You do not have to be good." Could a single line from a poem undo the cultural, religious, political, social, and gendered dogma all of us, to varying degrees, face? It felt that way to me, then. Sometimes to me, now, when I recall it. That's a powerful mantra.

And then, a few lines further:

"You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves."

The setting of this in my life, being present for the end of my father's — a moment to show up in earnest, and let fall cynical trappings — this was my introduction to Oliver. Maybe in a different context I would have dismissed her, but instead I gained an unshakable affection to her poetry, that I feel was earned by her skill and craft and work, more than the heightened setting.

I was reminded by Ruth Franklin's New Yorker piece on Oliver that Nicholson Baker's protagonist in The Anthologist said it clear: "Mary Oliver is saving my life."

I'm sure she has, by permission or prose, by teaching other writers to find in themselves what she found in herself, and even in simplistic earnest meaning found on horrible web pages with insipid nature pictures that love to present her work.

Oliver, who wrote over twenty books, did the work, and as she desired in life, the work speaks for her, no matter where or how you find it.

For those who only know the popular chart-topping hits, the ones that reach every anthology like the one I read to my father from, here is a piece about America, now: