Monday, March 19, 2012

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is one of the most popular of all contemporary American poets. She is known and loved for her accessible style, her positive outlook, and her portrayals of nature. When she was 17, she made a pilgrimage to visit the home of the deceased poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. She became friends with the poet's sister, Norma, and virtually lived on the 800 acre property with her for the next six years. She published her first collection of poetry when she was 28, but didn't receive much attention until her fifth collection, American Primitive (1983), won the Pulitzer Prize.

She disliked public attention — rarely granting interviews or making appearances. Even so, her poetry continued to gain notice, such as when her 1992 collection won the National Book Award. Her troubled childhood probably contributed to this desire for isolation. In a recent rare interview she expressed that she was sexually abused as a child, and feels damaged as a result. She also said in the same interview, “I try to praise. If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the earth is meant to look like.”

Although she is reluctant to identify herself too closely with organized religion, the faith she has expressed in such recent books as Thirst (2006), Red Bird (2008) and Evidence (2009), reveals a spirituality grounded not only in the natural world, but also in Christ. The Booklist review of Thirst says, “Spirituality has always been an element in Oliver's work, but as she writes of her grief after losing her longtime companion [Molly Malone Cook], her poems gradually become overtly Christian.” This is evident in such poems as “Coming to God: First Days”, “The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside Our Church: The Eucharist” and “Six Recognitions of the Lord”. All from that book.


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.


is the instructor.
We need no other.

Guess what I am,
he says in his
incomparably lovely

young-man voice.
Because I love the world
I think of grass,

I think of leaves
and the bold sun,
I think of the rushes

in the black marshes
just coming back
from under the pure white

and now finally melting
stubs of snow.
Whatever we know or don’t know

leads us to say;
Teacher, what do you mean?
But faith is still there, and silent.

Then he who owns
the incomparable voice
suddenly flows upward

and out of the room
and I follow,
obedient and happy.

Of course I am thinking
the Lord was once young
and will never in fact be old.

And who else could this be, who goes off
down the green path,
carrying his sandals, and singing?

Read my Ruminate review of Mary Oliver's poetry collection
Red Bird here, and my review for The Cresset of her boook Evidence, here.

This is the first Kingdom Poets post about Mary Oliver: second post, third post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: