Mary Oliver, “a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world,” has died, as reported in the New York Times obituary. Like all gifted poets, Oliver was an apprentice in attention, famously saying: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” While critics did not always appreciate her poetry, perhaps owing to its popularity among readers, writer Ruth Franklin says: “Mary Oliver isn’t a difficult poet. Her work is incredibly accessible, and I think that’s what makes her so beloved by so many people. It doesn’t feel like you have to take a seminar in order to understand Mary Oliver’s poetry. She’s speaking directly to you as a human being.” Franklin adds, “The way she writes these poems that feel like prayers, she channels the voice of somebody who it seems might possibly have access to God. I think her work does give a sense of someone who is in tune with the deepest mysteries of the universe.”
Here are two lovely poems, both read by Mary Oliver.
The Summer Day
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?
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
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.
In her poem, “When Death Comes,” Oliver writes her own obituary of sorts, expressing how she wishes to be remembered:
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.
- New Yorker: Ruth Franklin, “What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand.” For America’s most beloved poet, paying attention to nature is a springboard to the sacred. See PDF of article.
- On Being: Krista Tippett interviews Mary Oliver on “Listening to the World.”
- Image: Allison Backous Troy, “Mary Oliver: The Gift of the Word Despair.”
- New York Times: Margalit Fox, “Mary Oliver, 83, Prize-Winning Poet of the Natural World, Is Dead.”
- NPR: Lynn Neary, “Beloved Poet Mary Oliver, Who Believed Poetry ‘Mustn’t Be Fancy,’ Dies at 83.”