Poetic Licence


If you were to ask me to name one poem that has profoundly changed my life, it would be one written by Mary Oliver, who died last Thursday in Florida at the age of 83. It is called ‘The Journey’, and I owe it, as I have described previously in this column, an immense debt of gratitude.

Mary Oliver was born and raised in the American mid-western state of Ohio, enduring a difficult upbringing in which she suffered neglect and sexual abuse. In a 2011 magazine interview, she declared, “I had a very dysfunctional family, and a very hard childhood. So I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.”

As soon as she could, she left home and eventually settled, with her lifelong partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a place perfect for her habit of taking frequent long walks out into the natural world from which almost all of her poetry derives.

Direct, honest and accessible both in its language and imagery, Mary Oliver’s poetry has garnered her a worldwide following. Her books, for which she won both the Pulitzer Prize and the (US) National Book
Award, were regular best-sellers. She was, and remains, hugely popular. This very popularity with ordinary readers, however, meant that she suffered some condescending and mean-spirited reviews from academic critics. Her obituary in the Washington Post hints at why this might have been:

“While many of her contemporaries were creatures of the academy, holders of graduate degrees and distinguished professorships, Ms. Oliver kept her distance. She never graduated from college and taught
only occasionally… With the exception of her partner, Molly Malone Cook… Ms. Oliver seemed to prefer the company of dogs to people.”

She found the greatest joy, the greatest meaning, in nature, and there are innumerable poems I could quote to illustrate this. Rather than do so, though, let me invite you to come along to the first Reddits Poetry evening of 2019 on Friday 25 January where (I hope) a few of Mary Oliver’s fans may choose to read something of hers as a remembrance. Perhaps this will be one of them:

In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.

Mary Oliver
(from New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press, 1992)

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