Many years ago now, when I was struggling to understand the limits of my responsibility towards people who were sad or suffering, my therapist gave me a poem to read by Mary Oliver.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old rug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.
I thought it was a wonderful poem that fulfilled literature’s brief, as formulated by Chekhov, that ‘a writer should not provide solutions but describe a situation so truthfully that the reader can no longer evade it.’ I promised myself I would read a great deal more Mary Oliver, but it wasn’t until this year that I finally bought myself a copy of Dream Work, her collection from 1986. A short while later, I read that Mary Oliver had died, and as is so often the case, a wealth of articles followed that told me a great deal more about her life than I had previously known. What I read was a depressingly familiar story of a woman with immense talent, transmuted into tangible success, who was nevertheless regularly disparaged by the critical elite in the poetry world. So it was for reasons on a number of levels – personal gratitude, solidarity of the sisterhood, and a strong belief that Oliver’s poetry expresses a way of living we desperately need to embrace if the 21st century is to become survivable – that I felt I wanted to do some critical justice to her work.
Mary Oliver was born in 1935 to a sexually abusive father and a neglectful mother. You would not know this from her poetry which seeks not the release of the confessional, but the relief of turning one’s attention elsewhere. Walking in the woods of Ohio while reading Walt Whitman was her route to escape and renewal. She became fascinated by nature, by self-expression, by the spiritual life. When she graduated from high school, she decided to take a trip to Edna St Vincent Millay’s home in Austerlitz. There she met Edna’s sister, Nancy, formed an immediate friendship and moved in, for several years, to help sort out the late poet’s papers. She went to live in New York and then, on a return visit to Austerlitz in the late 50s, met the photographer, Molly Malone Cook, who became her life partner. The two women lived for the next forty years in Provincetown. Quietly. Unobtrusively. Just getting on with things. Oliver published her first collection in 1963, won the Pulitzer in 1984, won the National Book Award in 1992. None of this went to her head.
For Mary Oliver’s poetry was – is – a practice of devotion as much as it is – unarguably – an art. ‘If I have any lasting worth,’ she said in a rare interview late in life, ‘it will be because I have tried to remember what the earth is meant to look like.’ If you’ve ever read any Mary Oliver, then you will know that a profound, vital attentiveness to nature is the foundation stone of her work. In Dream Work, the subject matter might be turtles or marsh hawks or starfish or clams, but each receives a portrait of startling vivacity and insight, one that understands the nature of its being. Oh wildlife, you might say to me. Well, lots of poets write about that. What makes Oliver special? And it’s hard to put into words, but I’d say it’s because the looking and the attention matter viscerally to Mary Oliver. It’s not about being clever with words. It’s about finding a way for the poet to be plugged into the main circuit of the universe.
Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.
This comes from ‘Landscape’, and expresses with characteristic simplicity and directness the bond with the world that breathes through every word of her poetry. But can you guess where she takes it? This is what happens next:
Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though
all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong thick wings.
I think what Mary Oliver understands is the extent to which we are earthbound animals with dreams of going beyond ourselves. For me, her poems only reach their full potential when humans, and their unbearable humanity, get bound up in them too. Oliver’s poetic patience, her attention, never flinch even if faced with brutality or futility. But unlike so many other poets (and yes, Ted Hughes, I’m looking at you), the violence of nature is only a fragment of the whole, and not necessarily the most important part at that. Oliver taps into the dignity, self-sufficiency, tenacity and grace of the animal world, and she remind us how close our dreams of self-extension are to these other attributes, how much we desire them, how maybe we want them even more than power and violent conquest, but gave up on them as being too difficult, too subtle for us, a long time ago.
‘You do not have to be good,’ runs the first line of one of her most famous poems, ‘Wild Geese’. ‘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.’ Nature, Mary Oliver understands, is our Home. It is origin and end point, it is sustenance that is both physical and spiritual, it is allegory and information. If the world were not exactly as it is, we could not exist exactly as we are, and it is only the monstrous egotism of man that obscures the nature of our dependence. But if we are completely a part of the natural world, then what we see outside has something to tell us about who we are inside.
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.
What the critics who underestimate Mary Oliver fail to understand is that her poetry does not ask the reader to analyse it, but to live it.
I don’t know about you, but every morning lately, I seem to wake to a world that is a little more crazy, a little more corrupt and unethical than it was yesterday. It feels like the end of times, or at least the far extreme of an argument pushed to its limits. The argument is, I think, one for selfish capitalism, its components are certainly those of narcissism, venality, grandiosity and intolerance. In the confusion that this has created, I offer Mary Oliver as a kind of North Star by which we might orient ourselves again.
Mary Oliver was not interested in fame or riches, or the spoils of power and influence. No wonder those literary critics were disdainful; she eschewed the great game they were playing in which they decided who was in and who was out. I often wonder whether Oliver had read the psychologist Alfred Adler, who was writing about a hundred years ago with astonishing prescience about the courage we need to find to be normal. Adler believed that we were all longing to be extraordinary in order to overcompensate for early wounds, early fears, and that we equated in consequence being normal with being incapable. This was a dangerous position, Adler felt, because when the project of being exceptionally good failed, then we were tempted to make the leap to being exceptionally bad.
Mary Oliver knew something about this. The poem ‘Shadows’ opens with the lines
Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.
The poem is about the difference between the damage human beings can do, and the damage caused by natural disasters – ‘I mean/ the waters rise without any plot upon/ history, or even geography.’ Oliver writes. ‘Whatever/ power of the earth rampages, we turn to it/ dazed but anonymous eyes, whatever/ the name of the catastrophe, it is never/ the opposite of love.’ The quality of cruelty in the human world is of a different order, rising so often out of the failure of the desire to be exceptionally good, which curdles into feelings of hatred and envy. Though I think we may have created a category of catastrophe that neither Adler nor Oliver imagined, in our new, radical uncertainty about what good and evil look like. But both had the same solution to the problem – and that was to focus consistently on the work we were destined for, the work that is intrinsic to being alive.
Adler believed we had three main tasks to undertake. These are the tasks of friendship, of love and of work. In each case we must attend to learning and understanding what constitutes service to the community, what loving another person means, and what our individual purpose might be. Adler was very firm about the dangers courted by intruding upon another person’s task. (For this reason he was completely against parents ‘helping’ their children to do their homework, but I digress.) The point here is that these are the tasks that are given to each and every one of us to accomplish, and it is not doing those tasks that blights our experience of being alive.
Mary Oliver has an even neater formulation. As far as I see it, she rolls all three tasks into one: ‘To pay attention,’ she wrote. ‘this is our endless and proper work.’ Oliver had a very special kind of attention in mind, and she defined it when writing about her partner, Molly Malone Cook, after she died. She described how:
watching M when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the dark room, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – and empathy – was necessary if the attention was to matter.’
I think, if I read her right, that Mary Oliver is advocating a way of being that is the complete opposite of how we often live today. She had no interest in insecurity, pride, the relentless tracking of threat, the indulgence of competition. Her poetry invites us to turn ourselves outward, away from the demands of the ego, and be profoundly attentive to otherness with compassion and curiosity. And here I bring Adler forward again. The attention we give in this way is not supposed to be extraordinary, and it is not intended to intrude on the tasks of others. Mary Oliver did not try to save the world; she simply undertook her work of being a terrific poet. She was clear, repeatedly, that salvation was was a problem for the individual. In the poem ‘Dog Fish’ she wrote:
And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging towards them.
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,
they can do it.
Back in 1938, three years after Mary Oliver was born, Sartre made literary history with a character who, staring very hard at a tree, and its root in particular, nearly drives himself mad. The problem with the tree root is that it resists definition in the mind of the male protagonist. Whatever words he chooses to describe it, those words are not precise enough, not satisfying enough, and in this battle between vocabulary and veracity, the real threatens to win. Roquentin risks going eyeball to eyeball with existence and out of this terrifying struggle the doctrine of Existentialism was born. And a bleak, loveless doctrine it is too, exhorting mankind to have the courage necessary to live in an alien and meaningless world, taking responsibility for the overwhelming freedom of being alive. What would Existentialism have become, I wonder, if a poet like Mary Oliver had gazed at that troublesome tree root instead of a short, egotistic, entitled, male philosopher? It would still have been about full presence in the moment, but significantly, it would not have been about the battle for mastery.
Existentialism can be read, I think, as an exhortation not to be exceptionally bad in a world that is indifferent to our attempts to be exceptionally good. It has its chip of a heart in the right place. But it could not free itself from that desire for overreaching heroics. Camus came a little closer to fundamental acceptance in his myth of Sisyphus. Describing how the gods condemned Sisyphus to roll a giant rock to the top of the hill only to have it roll back down every time, Camus said that we must imagine Sisyphus is happy. He meant that the smallness of life might have its pleasures, even if he wasn’t quite sure what they were. When I look at Sisyphus through Mary Oliver’s eyes, I wonder whether he rolled that rock to the top of the hill again and again because he loved the magnificence of the view.
What if we were to swap overreaching and dominating and achieving for living alongside and paying attention and reflecting? What if we understood the enormous power of nature to be something we might respect? What if we realized that grandiose ambitions are precisely what keeps us away from doing the real work of being alive? And where we are right now, at this point in history, isn’t this meaningful humility something we can’t afford NOT to try?
If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.
If I stopped
If I stopped and thought, maybe
can’t be saved,