Mary Oliver (1935–2019) published more than 25 books of poetry and prose.
While she’s probably most well known for her poetry, one of my favorite books of hers is Upstream, a collection of essays about her relationship to the natural world, and how it influences her writing and reading: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty,” Oliver explains. “I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.”
In her essay with the same title as that book, she describes getting lost in the woods as a child. Instead of fear, she remembers “the sense of going toward the source” where nature shifted from an amorphous idea to a cacophony of individual personalities: “One tree is like another, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether.” Her essay ends with a call to ‘teach the children’ to notice the world again:
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.
In 2015, Mary Oliver sat down with Krista Tippett for a rare interview on the radio program On Being. The conversation is wide-ranging, but it begins with the challenges of Mary’s difficult childhood, and how writing in the woods saved her life:
Tippett: …you spent a lot of your time walking around the woods in Ohio.”
Oliver: Yes, I did, and I think it saved my life. To this day, I don’t care for the enclosure of buildings. It was a very bad childhood for everybody, every member of the household, not just myself, I think. And I escaped it, barely, with years of trouble. But I did find the entire world in looking for something. But I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.
Oliver explains to Tippett how her daily writing ritual involved carrying a notebook with her as she walked through the forest, and writing ideas down as they came to her, as if her body needed to be in motion for the words to come out. Tippett admits to Oliver how her main image of her always involved Mary walking and writing in the forest:
Tippett: “This pleasure of walking and writing and, I don’t know, standing with your notebook and actually writing while you’re walking [laughs]”
Oliver: Yes. That’s how I did it.
Tippett: “…It seems like such a gift that you found that way to be a writer,and to have that daily — have a ritual of writing.”
Oliver: “Well, as I say, I don’t like buildings. The only record I broke in school was truancy. I went to the woods a lot with books. Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as they came to me and then worked them into poems later.”
Her last book, Devotions, published in 2017, includes poems hand-selected by Oliver, meant to be the definitive collection of her body of work. One of my favorite poems of hers is in the collection, Wild Geese.
In Wild Geese, and many of her other poems, I sometimes wonder if Oliver is imagining having a conversation with the poet who inspired her most, Walt Whitman (1819 –1892). At the end of the poem she says to the reader:
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.