Shi: My Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver changed my life, and she’ll probably change yours, too.

by Katie Shi | 1/24/19 2:25am

In the past, I had never considered myself a “poetry person” — not because I disliked it, but because I couldn’t seem to understand it. I could appreciate a poem only after several rereads, a critical analysis and perhaps some outside research to catch any allusions I’d missed. I liked the work behind understanding a poem, but there was never a point when my enjoyment from poetry came naturally. 

Then I read Mary Oliver’s work for the first time.

I don’t know how, but she seems to respond perfectly to how I’m feeling — no matter where I am — through her writing about the natural world. With Oliver’s poetry, understanding comes from the gut. She taught me how to find beauty in the mundane, to find love in simplicity. Every poem reads like a revelation. It seems this quality should be inherent in all poetry, but it holds particularly true for Oliver’s. By writing so strictly and unabashedly about her personal relationship with nature without trying to be universal, Oliver manages to do just that. She connects her readers through a shared intimacy, freely given yet precious all the same. 

This subtle paradox exists in more than one aspect of Oliver’s writing. She knew her words were merely a record of her observations, yet that knowledge makes the tangibility of her writing all the more powerful. “Writing is neither vibrant life nor docile artifact but a text that would put all its money on the hope of suggestion,” she writes in her essay “Upstream.” “'Come with me into the field of sunflowers' is a better line than anything you will find here, and the sunflowers themselves far more wonderful than any words about them.” Her poetry takes readers to the woods, to the sea, to foxes and turtles and herons. Her identity is nearly inseparable from her environment. 

Through her poetry, Oliver encourages readers to join her in what she sees, touches and tastes. But her appreciation for nature is never a romanticization. In a rare interview with Krista Tippett, Oliver says, “Somebody once wrote about me and said I must have a private grant or something, that all I seem to do is walk around the woods and write poems. But I was very, very poor. And I ate a lot of fish. I ate a lot of clams.” In her poetry and essays, Oliver reveals to us the life she had lived, and the life that she thought everyone should live: one with patience, responsibility and thoughtfulness.

Oliver is a master of directives, and her poetry is at once luminous and didactic. In one prose poem, she tells us, “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy. don’t hesitate. Give into it . . . Joy is not made to be a crumb.” Humans are insignificant in the face of nature. What are we compared to the passing of seasons or the tip of a swan’s wing? Even so, the life we live can be a wondrous thing, as long as we pay attention. 

There exists a tradition of ownership from one artist to another that began, unwittingly, with Emily Dickinson. “The look of the words as they lay in the print I shall never forget,” Dickinson wrote to her cousins after she’d learned of George Eliot’s death in the newspaper. “Not their face in the casket could have had the eternity to me. Now, my George Eliot.” A century later, Susan Howe claimed Dickinson as her own. “Emily Dickinson is my emblematical Concord River,” she says in the introduction of her book “My Emily Dickinson.” Echoing Dickinson and Howe, Siri Hustvedt took ownership of the artist Louise Bourgeois. In her essay, Hustvedt declares, “My Louise Bourgeois is not just what I make of her works . . . but rather the Louise Bourgeois who is now part of my bodily self in memory, both conscious and unconscious, who in turn has mutated into the forms of my own work.” 

In this same tradition I now take ownership of Mary Oliver, with one main difference. It isn’t that I’m just a student and not some great artist, though that is true. It’s the impossibility of claiming Oliver for my own. Yes, her philosophy influenced how I look at the world; yes, her poetry changed my life. But she’s not just my Mary Oliver — she’s also yours, and yours, and yours.