One wild and precious life

Yesterday, the news that Mary Oliver had died rippled outward on social media. My Facebook timeline was filled with Oliver’s poetry, with her beautiful, unadorned face. Like others, I noticed that many of the articles being hastily thrown together seemed to omit the great love of her life, Molly Malone Cook. I also noticed that some of the snark that followed Mary Oliver around in life was continuing after her passing.

Many of the people who I saw mourning Oliver’s passing yesterday were not members of capital P Po-Biz. They were just folks who ran across a handful of Mary’s poems when they needed a lifeline, when they needed a poem that said you are part of this world, your life is precious. These people felt seen by Mary Oliver. They carried her poems on folded-soft paper in their wallets, taped them to their computer monitors, and probably never bought a copy of one of her books.

Mary Oliver had little to do with Po-Biz. I always appreciated that about her. She wanted to be outside in the wild wind more than she wanted to stand in front of adoring crowds. A goodly number of the Po-Biz world looked down their noses at Mary Oliver’s work. Some of that had to do with the fact that she was a woman, a lesbian, a person who didn’t often go to glitzy parties. They said she was soft, sappy, a (god-forbid) nature poet.

Yesterday, I looked at the world a little differently because of Mary Oliver’s passing. Yes, the world felt less observed, as if a spark of love for it had guttered. But also, I thought of all the times I was warned off writing about the natural world. Poems I’ve written about trees have been held up in workshop to ridicule. Even folks in the “eco-poetry” world have suggested that my poems need more of a call to action about the environmental crisis. These are the same folks who dismissed Oliver.

I’m not arguing that everything Mary Oliver wrote was genius. But, I am beginning to connect the dots in the denigration of women (soft, gentle, spiritual, accessible, adjectives used to signify not serious), the destruction and desacralization of the natural world, and some of the poetry that is lauded in our current Po-Biz culture. And I am thinking deeply about the (at this moment) 601 people who shared the graphic I made of Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life” on social media. How deeply we need to be reminded of astonishment, of our duty (dare I say sacred?) to share with each other what will buoy.

Yesterday, the sun was still behind the mountains across Kachemak Bay from where I live when news of Mary Oliver’s death came across the internet. But where it would rise, there was a pillar of red light. As I stood there, unashamedly crying, I wondered if it might just be a beacon. A welcome to the radiance of what comes next for Mary Oliver, a welcome party thrown by the poet Eva Saulitis, who passed three years ago on January 16, and the poet William Stafford, whose birthday was yesterday and who has been gone now 26(!) years. These great spirits who put down words that we get to keep. That we get to remember. That we can love, even if we don’t have an MFA. That we can carry forward.

And that is a mighty fine goal for a poet. Perhaps the only goal.

12 Replies to “One wild and precious life”

  1. Dear Erin,
    Thank you so much for your words here. You have expressed my thoughts exactly, from the snark to the sacred. The Po-Biz world has become so misguided but what you say here, especially, at the end, gives me hope.

  2. A beautiful tribute to a beautiful poet and poetry and women and humanity and all that is precious in this world. I am one of those who has a piece of her writing taped to my own writing desk. My life was forever changed when I read her poem, Wild Geese. Rest in Peace Mary Oliver, and thanks for sharing, Erin.

  3. Erin, thank you for your wise words. (Po-Biz is a mystery to me but it seems to be connected to academia???). The natural world is OUR natural world, however one defines it. What else does one write about. People and trees seem in order enough to me. (I had a dear poet friend who once wrote a poem dedicated to me that had a line re writing prompts: “When all else fails/consider trees” which was truly a direct quote from me. It was only partly in jest–not snarky jest, just jest.) You may find trees from eucalyptus to black spruce in various poems. There is little in landscape poems that is truly only about the tree. Or any other living thing. Mary Oliver opened my eyes. I cried when I heard hers are now closed. There are some amazing poets out there…she was one, an important one.

  4. Thank you, Erin, for being poetry in your daily walk. Thank your for tributes to Eva. I read her poetry by candlelight Jan 16. Thank you for Mary Oliver tributes. Standing at the window as a red-orange candle formed over Poot Peak, I thot it Mary and Eva rejoicing together also.

  5. Precisely! “The world felt less observed.” The hummingbirds and herons don’t know how much they will miss her!

  6. Thanks for this post. I think you put your finger on what has been troubling me about the news and reactions. It is all too easy for the poets concerned with form and sophisticated experimental language to dismiss poetry centered on observation and feeling. We diminish ourselves when we do that. There is a place for both and one is not “better” than the other. Also, the fact that this divide seems quite gendered is troubling.

    I never got fully into Oliver’s poetry but she has some verses that have resonated so deeply with me, and that means the world. I will miss her.

  7. Thank you Erin for this beautiful tribute. I read poetry to reach the deeper places of my heart and soul. Like many things in my life, I have realized that experts have different criteria than I do for appreciation and significance. I have spent the last two days memorizing poetry as I walked and skied, finding heart rocks, and paying attention. Thank you all for contribute and I have an enormous amount of gratitude to Mary Oliver.

  8. Hi Dylan,
    The graphic is on my FB page. It’s pretty near the top so it’s easy to find. I’m Erin Coughlin Hollowell on Facebook.
    Thanks for stopping in!

  9. Thank you, Erin, for this reflection. I am a counselor, and I use poetry in my practice because poetry has the power and potential to shift the human heart and spirit, to be a medicine of soul. Mary Oliver’s work was that for many of my clients. Her work has a courage of heart and a presence of spirit that is capable of transforming human experience, and opening windows and doors. Thanks again for these words that redeem the “sacred” calling in the art.

  10. I cannot love the thoughts you shared here enough. “These great spirits who put down words that we get to keep. That we get to remember. That we can love, even if we don’t have an MFA. That we can carry forward.” If the work you write helps save your own soul, it’s already done its job. If it helps save someone else’s? That’s the true dream.

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