Friday, January 6, 2012

Mary Oliver: a gift

One of my favorite writers of any genre, and my favorite poet, is Mary Oliver.
She is an American poet who writes about animals, trees, flowers, ponds, God, death, meaning and so many other things.
I have reread her poems many times—not in the OCD way of rereading, but for new insights and inspirations.
Her poetry—any great poetry—is like that. I can return again and again and find another layer, another meaning.
I don’t remember how I first came to read Oliver’s work. I have degrees in English and taught writing and literature many years ago, but I don’t remember my first exposure to her.
I do remember going to a reading that she gave when she was a writer-in –residence at Sweet Briar College.
It was such a wonderful experience. The room was packed, and she looked so small and frail at the front, but her reading was powerful. That’s where I first heard her poem, “Wild Geese.”
I have memorized the poem over the years, and when I’m anxious and my thoughts are racing and there seems no hope in slowing them down, I recite the poem to myself and it helps to calm me.
“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.”
-from “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver
I’m still trying to figure out the full meaning of that last line, even after all these years.
The words that end that poem are some of the most comforting I know:
“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.”
-from “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver
I’ve memorized some of her other poems, too. One of my goals is to memorize more of her work so her inspiration is literally just a thought away.
I think what calms me are her ideas, her questions, her deep connections to nature and her beautiful word choices. And I feel like she speaks to me and for me in so many ways.
I finally came to realize that when I read or recite her poetry from memory, I am really praying.
I have found her poetry to be an integral part of my attempts to pray and to meditate, and I expect it always will be.
I do have to be careful not to recite the lines by rote and forget about the meaning. Memorizing a new poem usually helps me with that.
One of the poems I want to memorize is the first one found in her volume of poetry “Thirst.”
“Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
-from “Messenger,” by Mary Oliver
   I’ll end this post by writing about “When Death Comes,” an Oliver poem I memorized a long time ago and still recite some nights.
   In the poem, she writes about the inevitability of death and how she wants to face it “full of curiosity.”
“And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular. . . ”
-from “When Death Comes,” by Mary Oliver

1 comment:

  1. My sister bought me a book of Mary Oliver's poetry once for my birthday and I really enjoyed it!


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