She was not known for excess. In fact, quite the opposite.
I speak of course, of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver, born 1935, who died earlier today at home in Florida. Without question, hers is a death whose sorrow has reached every corner of the literary world, from twitter to office room discussions and a million phone screens and google searches. And so, despite how it all may seem, here at Mythridate we would like to honor her in the only way we know how.
As dandies and fops and lovers of excess - of gilding and all things beautiful, it is easy to imagine that Oliver would have abhorred us. She was known to be simple to a near annoying degree by her critics. But today I want to focus on the similarities. Because, if you read but one of her many poems, you will see I think, enough middle ground to make a field.
We all fear death in different ways. But we do fear it. Death, I think is one of the greatest muses a poet can know. As a lover of poetry that stems from The Great War, I know too many poems that profess an adoration of youth and a bitterness as it’s loss. Death, in these poems is a thief you see coming but are helpless to stop. It is a friend in rain soaked ditches and boyhood dreams of home and easier times. A song over an unmarked grave and poppies left to haunt your dreams.
But Mary Oliver wrote of Death in a far different way.
When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn; when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; when death comes like the measle-pox; when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades, I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? 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, and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, tending, as all music does, toward silence, and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth. 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.
When Death Comes Mary Oliver
To Oliver, Death was an inevitability. There is no wish for immortality, or bitterness of girlhood to tinge her words but a very human yearning for a very human thing: to experience. Death, in this sense is but an end to the ability to enjoy the gift of life. By reading When Death Comes, we as an audience are filled with an understanding that Death is not as important as the thing that it symbolizes.
In fact the only fear that comes through is the single fear of regret and a sorrow about the inability the experience the pleasures of the world. The wonder of it all.
What has delighted audiences for decades about Mary Oliver’s writing is precisely that sense of wonder; the one which shines bright through every space it can. Between every letter and line and indentation of her works there is a shining light, unmissable and holy in its levels of hope. This is why high school students to this very day tuck her poems into books and shelves and tape them on walls as much as seminarians. Her sense of joy and love of the world was contagious and in a world so overwrought with agony and war and sorrow, Oliver’s writing could often be a reprieve. A breath between tears and a spotlight on the good in the world.
When I was told by someone close of Oliver’s death today, I thought of her age first, and then I said, “Well that’s a good life.” And in hindsight, maybe it was a bit cold but, when reading her poem here I think it’s what she may have hoped we would say. Mary Oliver, after all, was a poet who loved two things above all else. She loved nature, and she loved dead poets.
In an interview by the Poetry Foundation in 2012, Oliver was asked to list her favorites, and listed many, like the 13th century Rumi which she read every day for over almost two decades, but she also said :
“Walt Whitman, Percy Shelley, William Blake, the Romantics, but not Byron so much.”
Yes, I think we can find some commonality in that.
So when I think of her death, certainly, there is a sadness to it. There is an end to her experiences and an end to what her hands can touch and her eyes can see. The wonders of the world have been closed off to her, but I struggle to believe it is in a way that she would have disliked.
Today marks a new experience for Mary Oliver. An introduction into that great cottage whose dark corners her idols have haunted over the centuries. Today she joins a realm we cannot see but where she is surely loved. And what she has left us, we shall cherish same as the poets she cherished prior.
So thank you Mary Oliver, for giving us your poems, and thank you for all the inspiration and solace you have given the world. I know I am a stranger, but, I do not think you need to worry about regrets. Your spirit will live on in your words for the age to come. Unending, and with the continuing hope and solace that you provide new eyes and new minds with, who will just be learning of your name today.
And for those reading, I want to encourage a challenge for you that Oliver often gave her students. Find a poem by a poet you love, and read it every morning for a month.
Perhaps, I can encourage you to start with this one:
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.