The poetry of Mary Oliver is one of the magical things in this world. Whenever I feel choked by the dry crumbs of the prosaic bread of life, reading her poetry is like receiving a draught of living water. It's an immediate opening into stillness, and wonder. A quiet reverence for life unfolds and all's well with the world again.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these -
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
Her words are transparent, letting the essence in, transmuting the mundane into the mystical. With what subtelty she invokes That which is "subtler than the subtlest"!
In "The Swan" she writes
Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
Her work is a constant challenge to turn inward. There is an urgency to touch the very centre of that ache for truth, goodness, beauty.
"Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?" she asks.
And then again,
"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."
She brings out so well that plumbing spirit which is not satisfied with the surface of things but has to dive and discover in order to justify its existence...something we lose so often in the grooves of everyday life.
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
"I have a notion that if you are going to be spiritually curious, you better not get cluttered up with too many material things," she said in an interview, and you can see that notion pervading her work:
Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another -- why don't you get going?
For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.
And to tell the truth I don't want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don't want to sell my life for money,
I don't even want to come in out of the rain.
Mary Oliver is a Poet in every sense of the word, a high priestess of nature. Baba defined a poet once. He said only an artist who brings out the living spirit of the Divine in their work in a way that can stir the heart of the common man can be called a poet, and not someone who merely strings together a pretty fancy. In the Gita, the Lord Himself is described as "Kavi":
"He is the Great Poet, the Ancient Poet; the whole universe is His poem, coming in verses and rhymes and rhythms, written in infinite bliss."
The uniqueness of this poet is in the way she returns a sense of the miraculous to life without pedantry or preaching. She says her endeavour is "to keep words from eating the mind, to hear sounds and not verbalize them... to reach to the level that has no name." She never talks directly about the divine, she only suggests it, embodies it, brings it into closer-than-breathing awareness, and awakens it in the direct experience of the reader.
Eckhart Tolle says, "We have forgotten what rocks, plants, and animals still know. We have forgotten how to be - to be still, to be ourselves, to be where life is: Here and Now." But thank goodness the world still has poets like Mary Oliver to remind us!
Here is a sampling of some of my favourites. Enjoy!
When I Am Among the Trees
The Summer Day
Little Summer Poem Touching The Subject Of Faith
In Blackwater Woods
When Death Comes