Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Mary Oliver: Nature and the Poet

In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect.

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us.

We do not think of it every day, but we never forget it: the beloved shall grow old, or ill, and be taken away finally. No matter how ferociously we fight, how tenderly we love, how bitterly we argue, how pervasively we berate the universe, how cunningly we hide, this is what shall happen.

Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light.

There are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe—that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.

I am, myself, three selves at least. To begin with, there is the child I was. Certainly, I am not that child anymore! Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice—I can feel its hope, or its distress. It has not vanished. Powerful, egotistical, insinuating—its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy river of dreams. It is not gone, not by a long shot. It is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.

First and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing—an artifact, a moment of seemly and robust wordiness—wonderful as that part of it is. I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”

Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones–inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones–rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

Attention is the beginning of devotion.


 

From Upstream: Selected Essays. Copyright 2016 Mary Oliver. These passages were selected and arranged by Michael Simms.

3 comments on “Mary Oliver: Nature and the Poet

  1. jfrobb
    April 24, 2018

    I keep coming back to this post. Thank you, Mary Oliver. And thank you, Michael Simms. I have a collection of Oliver’s poetry beside my bed, a book I read on a regular basis. Always marveling at how she has managed to shape into words all that I feel (and more) about the wonders/blessings of Nature.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. triciaknoll
    April 21, 2018

    Attention is the beginning of devotion. Thank you for offering your readers these wonderful selections.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sharon Koota
    April 21, 2018

    Beautiful, insightful, and inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

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