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The prayer-poems of Mary Oliver



'Let me keep company always with those who say / 'Look!' and laugh in astonishment, / and bow their heads.' — 'Mysteries, Yes', by Mary Oliver

When Mary Oliver was very young she loved the poet William Blake so much that she carried around a picture of him in her wallet. On the back she wrote, 'Uncle William.'

Mary Oliver New and Selected PoemsRecently we learned of her death in Florida from lymphoma at 83. Flooding my Facebook page were tributes. Perhaps this is indicative of my friends on social media, but increasingly I hear her poetry quoted: recently an Anglican bishop told me she was his current favourite poet. Oliver's poems can appear unexpectedly like those 'gannets diving' or 'a small planet flying past', a swarm of bees 'all anointed with excitement'. Her words are 'unstoppable'. ('Hum, Hum').

'Why do I have so many thoughts, they are driving me crazy. / Why am I always going anywhere, instead of somewhere?' she asks in 'I Don't Want to be Demure or Respectable'. Her poetry is abundant with images of nature: mountains, trees, crickets, chickens, grass, owls, swans, herons ...

There's a whole volume dedicated to Dog Songs, including tributes to her beloved Percy, echoing Christopher Smart's 'My Cat Jeffry': 'For he came to me impaired and therefore certain of short life, yet thoroughly rejoiced in each day ... / For he was a mixture of gravity and waggery ... / For he took actions both cunning and reckless, yet refused always to offer himself to be admonished ... / For when he lay down to sleep he did not argue about whether or not God made him. ('For I Will Consider My Dog Percy') And, of course, her most oft quoted final two lines from 'The Summer Day': 'Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?'

Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She attended Ohio State University and Vassar College. Her first published collection of poetry was when she was 28 years old. Her fifth publication, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1984, and her New and Selected Poems the National Book Award in 1992. She was awarded a number of honorary doctorates, taught poetry and held residences in various Universities and Colleges in the United States until 2001.

With her partner for over 40 years, photographer Molly Malone Cook, she lived in Provincetown Massachusetts. Molly died in 2005. Oliver stayed here and also in Hobe Sound, Florida. Her life remained enmeshed in the visceral landscape of woods and changing moods of Blackwater Pond. She was private, rarely doing interviews. Ever self protective of her anonymity, in a New York Times interview in 2013 she admitted laughingly: 'One time a stranger came to the house and asked if I was Mary Oliver ... And I said, "No, I'm not Mary Oliver."'

The poetry of Mary Oliver is as unique and distinctive as those writers she is obviously so influenced by, Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, Walt Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Shelley, Rumi, and Hafiz. In an interview in 2012 she confessed: 'the two things I loved from a very early age were the natural world and dead poets, (who) were my pals when I was a kid.' There is for her another reality that shines through our inhabited world, and there is a belief in words — that language can reveal this hidden reality, or at least direct the reader's mind toward it.


"Mary Oliver's poetry is always relational. She is erotic, full of praise and gratitude. She asks us questions, invites us into her space, only to gently to direct our gaze out again into the world."


The first book of her poetry I chanced upon at a friends house 15 years ago, struck me by its title: Owls and Other Fantasies. Why not Owls and Other Birds, I wondered. And it is this, that attracted me then and still does in her writing. There is often an unexpected, quirky shift of thought, yet directness in her choice of words. There is clarity, quiet authority yet searching vulnerability in her voice. Alongside a powerful sense of immanent presence, something unseen is touched upon where all seeing comes from: '... nothing but light — scalding, aortal light — / in which we are washed and washed / out of our bones.' ('White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field')

Mary Oliver's poetry is always relational — she seeks to connect with nature, with people, with what is around her, with us. She is erotic, full of praise and gratitude. She asks us questions, invites us into her space, only to gently to direct our gaze out again into the world. She constantly encourages us to take on her own practice of re-seeing what it means to be alive: '... if you have not been enchanted by this adventure — your life / what would do for you?' ('To Begin With, The Sweet Grass')

For Oliver the visionary co-exists with the ordinary, with terror and with suffering. This has to do with loving the mystery of life. In the middle of her own rapturous vision of a Swan, she writes, 'Said Mrs Blake of the poet: / I miss my husband's company — / he is so often / in paradise.' ('The Swan')

Here is a marvellous inversion. When we speak of visionary we usually think of Blake, not Blake's wife. But here we are reminded that the visionary necessarily coexists alongside the humdrum and the hapless.

I once thought that Mary Oliver's poetry was reflective and spiritual, not interested in social or political agendas. But I was wrong. Yes, her poems increasingly become more like prayer-poems. Soon after publishing A Thousand Mornings in 2012, she said: 'I think one thing is that prayer has become more useful, interesting, fruitful, and ... almost involuntary in my life ... And when I talk about prayer, I mean really ... what Rumi says in that wonderful line, "there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground". I'm not theological, specifically, I might pick a flower for Shiva as well as say the hundredth [psalm].'

But she herself came to realise that it's not just kneeling and kissing the ground that needs to be encouraged in people, but that the natural world itself, which fed and sustained her creatively and emotionally for a lifetime, is now endangered. We are in danger of wrecking creation:

'The woods that I loved as a child are entirely gone. The woods that I loved as a young adult are gone ... And this is happening to the world and I think it is very very dangerous for our future generations, those of us who believe that the world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, but it is in itself an act of some kind of spiritual thing. I said once, and I think this is true, the world did not have to be beautiful to work. But it is. What does that mean?'

Mary Oliver's poetry has much to teach all of us for a long time to come.



Carol O'ConnorCarol O'Connor is a Melbourne writer and poet. She manages St Peters Bookroom and keeps a blog on its website.

Topic tags: Carol O'Connor, Mary Oliver, poetry



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Existing comments

Thank you for this wonderful, illuminating tribute to a wonder-full, illuminating poet.

Jena Woodhouse | 31 January 2019  

I've just read Mary Oliver's "The Journey" and so I've discovered a poet. I liked the words she said to a stranger who came to her house and asked if she was Mary Oliver - "No, I'm not Mary Oliver".

Pam | 31 January 2019  


Denis Quinn | 01 February 2019  

Having just read this superb article I am looking out from Brighton le Sands across Botany Bay towards Kurnell, the Heads and 250 years of history. The last paragraphs express perfectly my fears for a big Australia and the future.

Denis Quinn | 01 February 2019  

Carol O'Connor, Thank you for a fine tribute to one who continue to inspire.

Janet | 01 February 2019  

It seems that she had a female partner. How can such a wonderfully insightful person be described by the Catholic Church as “intrinsically disordered”, which is the direct implication from stating that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered? The church needs to move on from its position regarding people with alternative sexual orientations. How does it reconcile its view that “God does not create rubbish” when referring to people with disabilities and special needs, but not to people with alternative sexual orientations?

Frank S | 01 February 2019  

A beautiful piece of writing & a touching insight into a fine poet's work.

Frances Roberts | 01 February 2019  

Thanks Carol for that lovely tribute to Mary Oliver. I shall print it out and take it to the next Poetry workshop of the Wordsmiths of Melbourne to share

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 01 February 2019  

Frank S, true it is that "God does not create rubbish", but we must also factor into Christian anthropology and theology human fallenness and the need for grace which affect all. The Catholic Church does not teach that any created person is "intrinsically disordered" - to do so would be to contradict the very nature of a God who creates out of love. This is not to say, though, that we creatures are perfect and totally inclined to truth and love in all we desire and do, whether heterosexually or homosexually oriented. I think Mary Oliver's poetry displays a strong sense of this.

John | 06 February 2019  

Thanks for publishing such a splendid tribute to a wonderful poet. Mary Oliver's poetry is profoundly compassionate and dignified.

Michael Sharkey | 09 February 2019  

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