Poets occupy a curious place in our society. Their whole objective is the creation of beauty, an occupation often seen as privileged, or even superfluous. Still, they persist, offering their ideas and observations to an ungrateful, inattentive world. Their audience is narrow, and their recognition is scarce.
And yet, Mary Oliver endures. Or endured, it would seem, as she passed into eternity last Thursday. Oliver’s challenge was to create poetry for an audience that is not only often apathetic toward poetry, but also has little conception of what a poem is or should be. In such an environment, poets are tasked with defining their own poetic philosophy before they can even begin to create. Oliver answered this call with astonishing clarity, refusing to merely describe the beauty of the world, but purposing also to tether us to it, to give people who increasingly live in the abstract a firm anchor to the earth. Oliver’s poetry responds to questions of existence with clear and plain pictures of the physical world, answering curiosity about creatureliness with an insistence that we give attention creatures.
In a world stuffed to the brim with data and statistics and rife with pressure to choose sides, she gently insists that it is a good thing to sit in wonder, to assume a posture of grateful worship.Oliver’s work insists on the trustworthiness of general revelation, a strong belief that we have been firmly placed in a good and true world that teaches us faithfulness, gentleness, and goodness. Her poetry suggests that giving attention to the details of creation–to snakes, to geese, to summer–helps us love the world and understand ourselves.
When the world has overwhelmed me with its mystery, I’ve often turned to Oliver’s work. It is as much instruction as it is beauty, telling us how to navigate the questions of living, pulling us back to our right places in the scheme of creation. It is a touchstone, reminding me that there is a specific and valuable weight in creation that steadies and secures us, heavy with surprise and gratitude.
* * *
Two years ago, I stood by while my friend was laid low in the ground. The previous summer, she had been diagnosed with a fast and mean form of brain cancer, an illness that left little margin for questions or hope of survival. In the months that followed her diagnosis, I dealt with grief and anger. But her death felt like the seams had ripped, like the world had become unhinged in the space of a few minutes. The limits of sorrow seemed wide enough to split the universe. If my friend, a constant in my life, could make such a quiet exit, the facts of things like fingers and roads and children and balloons seemed utterly questionable.
And yet. There were lunches to pack, dogs to bark, bills to pay, errands to finish. There were jokes and stories and questions. To my shock and amazement, the world kept spinning on its wobbly axis. The universe had ripped open, but it was still there, tattered and sore. It could tear again. It will. The brave thing is to know that, and continue, eyes open.
And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt
swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
is sure to be there.1
* * *
My children seem infinite. They are young enough to find continual joy in discovery, for the whole world to feel completely fresh. Watching them play feels irresponsible, as though I should be placing limits on their happiness, reminding them that the world is barreling toward them with all of its harsh realities. It feels like a setup, letting them imagine that everything is safe and full of possibility, when I know better.
At least, I think I do. Joy is fleeting but real—that is certain. They wage war against despair in their play, bolstering their souls against the coming storms. God says that His joy is strength, and this joy must come from Him, so pure and innate and untraceable. So I wrap baby dolls and snap blocks together. We toss fears and dig up darkness and conspire, giggling, against hopelessness.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.2
* * *
Prayer is a tightrope discipline. Understanding its mechanics does little to mitigate the creeping feeling that we are speaking into a void. Oliver admits this, conceding that the essence of prayer is a mystery. But though the what is a mystery, the how is clear, because the world itself is a stage for prayer. Theologians have long noted the power of general revelation, how a person cannot walk through a field, fully attentive, and not feel a joyful compulsion to give thanks for the clear and present gift of this earth, our home. Grass is, therefore, the way the world receives me when I kneel: gently, and in bloom.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.3
* * *
The inevitability of death is natural and frightening. Oliver’s own philosophy on death was consistent with her other ideas about the natural world—we are reassured by the reliability of nature, allowing for its mystery and wonder because we recognize its beauty and goodness.
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.4
Oliver’s poetry reminds us that astonishment is a bridge between us and the beauty of creation. In a world stuffed to the brim with data and statistics and rife with pressure to choose sides, she gently insists that it is a good thing to sit in wonder, to assume a posture of grateful worship. The world is not a fleeting thing, and we are not mere visitors. We have been deliberately, rightfully placed here by a benevolent creator. We would do well to anchor ourselves and seek to understand this world, before we, like Oliver, must leave it.
1. “Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith,” Mary Oliver
2. “Don’t Hesitate,” Mary Oliver
3. “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver
4. “When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver