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Remembering Mary Oliver

The celebrated poet and Pulitzer prize winning poet Mary Oliver passed away last week. Even if the name Mary Oliver is not very familiar to you, you have likely seen excerpts of her poems floating around the internet. Perhaps most notably are the final lines from her poem "Summer Day": Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?

Poetry has always felt unapproachable to me, at least until I heard an interview with Mary Oliver on the podcast On Being. I had one of those "driveway moments" where I sat in the car after I had arrived at my destination (Sprinkler World, in fact, to get a replacement for our sprinkler system) to listen longer. I love what she said in the interview about a poem being like a song whose words come to you when you need them: "People are more apt to remember a poem and therefore feel they own it and can speak it to themselves as you might a prayer than they can remember a chapter and quote it. And that’s very important because then it belongs to you. You have it when you need it. But poetry is certainly closer to singing than prose. And singing is something that we all love to do or wish we could do."

After listening to the interview I checked out some books of poetry and essays by Mary Oliver at the library. What struck me, and why I think she is so widely loved, is how accessible her poems are; the language is easy to understand. She is known for spending her days tromping through the woods in Massachusetts and often on the surface her poems are about the natural world: water, trees, grass, snakes, grasshoppers. The deeper meaning of her poems can also be understood without a literature degree. She wonders about her purpose in the world, about her place in it, and about how we make sense of the world.

Inspired by Oliver's reflection of a poem being something you carry with you for when you need it I memorized "I Go Down To The Shore":

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out
and I say, "Oh I am miserable,
what shall–
what can I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I had never memorized a poem before, or since in fact. But it is indeed a lovely thing to carry with me and to take out from time to time. Sometimes I think of these words and recite them to myself when I feel overwhelmed. Sometimes they come floating to me during an otherwise mundane moment, like when I'm making the bed. I am always happy to greet them and reflect on their meaning: the current of the natural world that continues without regard to my worries and the comfort of that; the suggestion that we keep moving forward, keep working on our craft, even if it's hard. At least that's what the poem has meant to me.

Knowing more about an artists life always draws me to them as well. In the On Being interview, Oliver mentions having a very dark childhood that she escaped by being out in the woods and through poetry. As I have read her poems I think about how remarkable it is for a person to create beauty and express such awe of the world when their beginnings incredibly difficult. I find hope in knowing this. It seems a testament to the human spirit and the power of being connected with the natural world.

If you would like to learn more about Mary Oliver here are a few suggestions:

+ Mary Oliver interviewed for On Being

+ Poetry Foundation: Mary Oliver

+ Mary Oliver reads "Wild Geese"

+ Mary Oliver's Poems Taught Me How To Live (New York Times)

+ Obituary for Mary Oliver (New York Times)

+ A Thousand Mornings (which includes I Go Down To The Shore)

+ Upstream, a collection of essays

I feel thankful that Mary Oliver gifted us with so many poems and beautiful observations.

Do you have a favorite Mary Oliver poem? Or other poets that you love? I would love to read more poetry and find another simple poem to memorize.