author: quinn bell | a&c writer
Some novels definitely worth going through / Jeremy Davis
Remembering an amazing poet.
“It has always seemed, across her 15 books of poetry, five of prose and several essays and chapbooks, that Mary Oliver might leave us at any minute. Even a 1984 Pulitzer Prize couldn’t pin her to the ground. She’d change quietly into a heron or a bear and fly or walk off forever.”
— Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review
I first read Mary Oliver in a card given to me by my mother at the end of elementary school. Our grade eight teacher had everyone’s parents write them an affirming and personal letter: she wanted to us to know just what we meant to our families and to feel inspired in starting the next part of our lives. In my card, my mom included a quote from Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” asking: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Both then and now, the question has no easy answer.
Mary Oliver spent her one precious life kneeling in the grass, wandering through the trees, contemplating the natural world and her place in it. She then wrote about her experiences, expertly crafting both verse and prose, sharing wise and mindful words with the rest of us.
Her poetry is replete with the wild. Oliver always grants nature a romantic and respectful personhood. In her work she is always mindful, careful to observe her surroundings and feel blessed at the rare opportunity to be there.
Be it an image of a grasshopper eating sugar out of her hand, of a heron stretching across a marshy pond, or of a bulbous and brightly coloured fly amanita mushroom that caught her eye in the woods, there is a simple yet profound joy permeating her words. Reading her poems on the natural world, one can’t help but feel the same relaxed gratitude as she. Her writing is thoughtful and accessible, never too complicated. She sums up all her own work quite well in her poem “Praying,” when she writes: “just / pay attention, then patch / a few words together and don’t try / to make them elaborate, this isn’t / a contest but the doorway / into thanks, and a silence in which / another voice may speak.”
Mary Oliver was very well received, having won many awards and titles. These include the prestigious Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America (1970), the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1972), the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for book American Primitive (1984), and the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems (1992), among many others. Oliver has also been awarded three honorary doctorates from The Art Institute of Boston (1998), Dartmouth College (2007) and Tufts University (2008). This is particularly impressive, as she never completed an undergraduate degree of her own.
Years after receiving that letter from my mom, I’ve returned again to “The Summer Day.” In the wake of Oliver’s death, it holds some new meaning for me. It still asks about the future, about what to do with one’s life. But I see now it is also about celebrating a life well-lived. The beloved poet speaks for herself one more time, when she asks: “Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”