And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
from The Swan
Mary Oliver, one of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ most masterful poets, has died, leaving behind a swan-shaped hole in our world and our hearts. The exact magnitude of the loss of such a gentle giant seems impossible to articulate. She once said that she read and wrote in order to save her own life. Many (including this writer) have read her poems with the same intention and will continue to do so.
Though born in Ohio, Mary lived much of her rather unassuming life in Provincetown, Massachusetts, as a member of the local community more than a national literary treasure. That said, she received widespread adoration, adulation, and countless awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for her American Primitive and the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems. The Boston Globe recounts the following anecdote illustrating the twin worlds of Oliver’s life:
The morning after the Pulitzers were announced, she went to the town dump seeking shingles for her roof. “I was greeted by three men with big smiles,” she told the Globe a few months later. “One asked, ‘Are you Mary Oliver?’ I said yes. Like a lot of people in the town, they knew me only as Mary. They hadn’t known before what it is I do.”
Existentialist philosophy is often said to be not of the ivory tower, but of the trenches. The same could be said of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Like Bukowski, her poems strike one as not being written for the scholar, but for the people, for the walkers of woods and fields, lovers of dogs, for spiritual and skeptical alike, for the casual or avid flâneur. She was known to stroll herself quite a bit and extolled the virtues of going for a walk to stimulate the senses and the mind together.
In an oft-maligned millennium of social media and short attention spans, she was able to confer a sense of deep wonder to multitudes. She drew people to her words and to herself, to her beauty and the beauty she created. Mary did all this by communicating, by wading into and engaging with the intractable without insulating herself with impenetrability. More distance seems to separate the gateways to poetry in the current century than in previous epochs, but Mary stood apart. She was a vast bridge transporting people into a world of rhythm, rhyme, meter, and the hard-won, meticulous elegance of the stanza.
Her limpid oeuvre imparts wisdom quite often by means of interrogation and veneration rather than homily, even as it swims right alongside your own spirit. She questioned the universe and its bottomless mystery and attempted to allow nature to reveal itself to her as she revealed herself to nature. Thoreau and Whitman made such attempts (to namedrop just a few), and in the LA Times Book Review, Mary was described as having a “Blake-eyed revelatory quality”. Mary Oliver is without a doubt spoken in the same breath as these three and many others besides. Living in and with the world in order to feel her place (and vicariously our own) more deeply within it, to fathom the fathomless, to share with texture and substance what wing on which she had risen, stem which she had touched, breeze seen, and natural education gleaned. As was said of Rousseau, some of Mary’s most notable pastimes were “in solitude…and a romantically lyrical communion with nature.” Modest pleasures expertly limned.
Without any doubt, Mary Oliver is a classic of our age and for all the ones to come. Her place among the stars of poetic creation is set as if in stone, alongside those chiseled scribes in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, a beatific image of wonder, grace, and reverie through poetic expression. When the world is particularly rife with strife and discord and factions abound, we would do well to return to Mary, and often, so that we may remember reverence, experience peace, commune with nature, and take delight in the hard-won humility and comfort of her words.