Facets of the Maker: the life and work of Mary Oliver
In “Steepletop,” an essay in which Mary Oliver recalls her time living at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s estate of the same name, she insists: “We need to be each others’ storytellers—at least we have to try. One wants to know what the beautiful strangers were like—one needs to know. Still, it is like painting the sky.”
Mary Oliver died on Jan. 17, at the age of 83. In the ensuing weeks, I have been trying to paint the sky. I have read, to the exclusion of almost all other reading, Oliver’s vibrant prose and her celebrated, mocked, beloved, frequently Pinterested poems. I have noted line after line of beautiful observation, wondrous wisdom, phrases glorious, inimitable and ecstatic. My pen has underlined and bracketed words that I will continue to ponder and cherish for the rest of my “wild and precious” life.
In Moby-Dick, Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, tells us that a whaling ship was his Harvard and Yale. Oliver’s work testifies that her greatest pedagogy took place in the woods. Like another 19th-century spirit, Henry David Thoreau, she went to the woods to live deliberately, first in the forests around Maple Heights, Ohio, where she was born in 1935, and then, for most of her life, in Provincetown, Mass. She attended Ohio State University and Vassar College, where I imagine her response to academia was similar to that of Gertrude Stein, who, when she was a student of William James, wrote on a final: “Dear Professor James, I am so sorry, but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.”
Her greatest pedagogy took place in the woods.
Whatever her aptitude as a student, she was an excellent teacher. As an undergraduate at Bennington, I had the rare pleasure of being her student in classes where we read Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. She graciously directed tutorials in which I worked on translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and presented her with my own poems. She read them with a generous eye, ear and heart. From 1996 to 2001, Oliver held the Catherine Osgood Foster Chair at Bennington, after brief stints as poet-in-residence at other universities. Though she did not offer it while I was there, the title of her course on Gerard Manley Hopkins lingers in my imagination: “The Poem as Prayer, the Prayer as Ornament.” (This is also the title of an essay on Hopkins that appears in her last book of poems, Winter Hours, published this April).
‘A Gregarious Recluse’
It was at Steepletop that Oliver began what she describes in Our World as a 40-year conversation with the photographer Molly Malone Cook. The keen and sympathetic eye one experiences looking at Cook’s photographs obviously had a nourishing and profound impact on Oliver’s life and work. “M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles.” This is a fine paraphrase of the definition of faith from the Letter to the Hebrews. For many years Oliver and Cook ran a bookshop in Provincetown, and I imagine they both would have identified with Annie Dillard, who set her novel The Maytrees in Provincetown and describes herself as “a gregarious recluse.”
Oliver learned the art of "seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles.”
Poets are often wedded to the places in which they live. The name Wordsworth evokes the Lake District, Merwin’s poems and his palm forest in Hawaii seem like a continuity of one great work, and over the last several decades, the State of Kentucky has become a school of poets that includes bell hooks and Wendell Berry, Frank X Walker and Nikki Finney. Had Oliver lived much of her life somewhere other than Provincetown, it is likely she still would have been an adamant praiser of trees, berries, birds and ponds. But she became, in her prose and in her best poems, the voice of Provincetown. She inhabited the land and seascape with a voice by turns ebullient and terrified, attracted always to what a wave or a whelk might have to say about God.
Speaking of God has fallen out of fashion in many poetry circles, or at least speaking with the plainness, the dearness Oliver brought to her divine communications. Those who disliked her writing require, I suppose, a poetry more severe, more sophisticated—what the poet Jack Gilbert described as “irony, neatness and rhyme pretending to be poetry.” Because of her popularity, many within the literary community belittled Oliver’s work. Whether they looked down on her out of jealousy or genuine conviction that the writing did not merit its following it is hard to say.
Those who disliked her writing require, I suppose, a poetry more severe, more sophisticated.
This ridicule by Michael Robbins, in a review of Robert Hass, is emblematic of the condescension many reviewers applied when they bothered to review her. Robbins writes: “Like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Sharon Olds—in their different ways—Hass has made a career out of flattering middlebrow sensibilities with cheap mystery. Unlike those poets, Hass has real talent.” How exhilarating it must have been to write off four revered poets in one fell swoop.
Not every poet, not every poem speaks to everyone. Still, to dismiss entirely a career marked not just by popular success but by institutional awards strikes me as, at the very least, uncharitable.
Oliver was in many ways an old-fashioned poet, happily so, and you could read much of her work without being aware that the 20th century, much less the 21st, had transpired. Her essays on literature are about Wordsworth and Whitman, Emerson and Poe. She does cite a poem by Lucille Clifton in A Poetry Handbook but otherwise does not give evidence that she spent much time reading her contemporaries, in general, or women and people of color, in particular. There is a surprising conservatism about her taste. She is willing to accept the Western canon for what it is and offers no objection, no addenda to all those white men.
Oliver was in many ways an old-fashioned poet, happily so.
It pains me to point out this limitation of Oliver’s. One might stand under an oak and complain that it does not emit the fragrance of an apple tree or produce the petals of a dogwood. As Oliver herself would put it, we should learn to look with reverence before each made thing for what it is: a reflection of some particular facet of the Maker, even if it is not the facet we desire. By these lights, we should look at Oliver and her taste in literature as simply what it is—a reflection of her loves.
And yet. A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance, where she quotes only from the “traditional” canon, have been used to instruct new generations of poets and would-be poets. So the examples they provide matter. I am sure Oliver did not sit down thinking about how she could exclude certain schools of poets or poetry as she prepared these books. Still, an editor might have suggested she cast a wider net as she sought to illuminate the craft of poetry.
Pitching Her Tent
Like her friend Stanley Kunitz, whom she celebrates in a poem titled simply with his name (“I think of him there/ raking and trimming, stirring up/ those sheets of fire”), Oliver left Bennington somewhat abruptly. If her departure was not so dramatic as Kunitz’s (upon being confronted by the college president after organizing a student protest, he threw a plant in his face and then quit), Oliver clearly did not care for the constraints academic life placed on her time. In the last letter I received from her, she wrote: “I cannot meet with you—or anyone—except a blank sheet of paper every morning, I’m sorry. But it is the point of not working with other texts, to get thoroughly inside the tent of my own.”
She is willing to accept the Western canon for what it is and offers no objection.
Of course, it was her beloveds, Whitman and Wordsworth, Hopkins and Hawthorne, who helped pitch her tents. The mark and charm of Whitman are undeniable when you survey her work: their energy, the improvisational sauntering and expansion of poems like “West Wind” and “White Pine.” Oliver’s inclination, identified by Whitman in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” is to give the halls of learning their due but always return to the greater university, creation.
James Wright was perhaps the most significant influence from the generation directly preceding hers, not just in his poems but in their long correspondence. In a letter from 1963, Oliver wrote Wright: “Tonight, in a room the size of the cupboard, I am broke, I am getting a cold, intermittently I am thinking of someone who never comes anymore, and nothing really matters. I am radiant with happiness because James Wright exists.” The radiance was mutual. He wrote her shortly before his death in 1980, praising Twelve Moons, which had just been published. “I sometimes idly wonder if and when you and I will ever actually meet—though, in a way, we seem to have known each other since childhood.”
Thus Oliver invokes her priestly calling, to preside at table, to break and offer bread.
“Three Poems for James Wright” stands among the most poignant and powerful poems in Devotions, a large selection of her work that Oliver put together in 2017. In this moving suite of poems, she recalls learning of Wright’s illness and death. She describes telling some small creatures by a creek of Wright’s cancer:
I felt better, telling them about you.
They know what pain is, and they knew you,
and they would have stopped, too, as I
was longing to do, everything, the hunger
and the flowing.
This image is consistent with Oliver’s panentheism, her ability to see God in all things and all things in God. In a spider under a stairwell and a favorite pond, the flowers along the beach a child intentionally scarred to beg for charity, a cleaning woman in an airport bathroom and a young man with a gift for constructing with lumber but not with language, Oliver sought and saw revelation. It is this quality that gives her work the luster of the eternal.
She has ability to see God in all things, the flowers along the beach, a child intentionally scarred to beg for charity.
Some poems we pass through as we would a shop or a station. We might marvel at a line or image, be struck by certain sounds, but we move on with the pace of our days. A few poems become houses, and we live in them, sitting in their rooms, staring out their windows, watching the seasons become years. Who knows how many people have lived inside “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day.”
In addition to these, I inhabit, with the humility of a disciple, at least two or three dozen others. What could be more intoxicating than these opening lines from “Humpbacks”: “There is, all around us,/ this country/ of original fire”? I can think of nothing more pleasantly instructive than this from “Flare”:
When loneliness comes stalking, go into the fields, consider
the orderliness of the world. Notice
something you have never noticed before,
like the tambourine sound of the snow-cricket
whose pale green body is no longer than your thumb.
And, a few stanzas later:
Scatter your flowers over the graves, and walk away.
Be good-natured and untidy in your exuberance.
In the glare of your mind, be modest.
And beholden to what is tactile, and thrilling.
Live with the beetle, and the wind.
This is the dark bread of the poem.
This is the dark and nourishing bread of the poem.
Thus Oliver invokes her priestly calling, to preside at table, to break and offer bread. The repetition of the word dark works liturgical and poetic wonder, taking the reader to the cross and allowing suffering to receive its due before assuring us, like the Psalmist, that joy comes in the morning, that we will be nourished, that resurrection is a daily, cyclical, seasonal reality. In over two dozen works of poetry, prose and prose poetry, Oliver deployed repetition as a kind of remembrance and to establish an abiding disposition of patient and reverent attention. “Keep looking,” she wrote in “Sand Dabs, Three.” And, a few lines later, echoing Whitman’s invitation at the conclusion of “Song of Myself,” “Keep looking.”
In “Whistling Swans,” she asks what posture the reader adopts before offering her petitions, then answers, “Take your choice, prayers fly from all directions.” For many, Oliver’s poems offer coordinates, as a compass would, deep into the self, the world and God. One marvels at her work, as she did in her elegy for James Wright, “How it sang, and kept singing!/ how it keeps singing!”