‘Every Morning the World is Created’: Nature and transcendence in the poetry of Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver passed away at age 84 in Hobe Sound, Florida, January 17, 2019. She was one of the most widely read and appreciated poets in the United States. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1984) and numerous other honors, including four honorary doctorates and the National Book Award (1992), Mary Oliver owed the success of her vast poetic and non-fiction output (almost 30 volumes of poetry, and prose) to her ability to touch the key questions of existence through an immediate and familiar dialogue with the reader.
She was the author of a clear and direct poetry that drew inspiration from the world of nature, which she observed on her long, daily walks in the woods of Provincetown (Massachusetts) where she lived. “Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And calls for a vision – a faith, to use an old style term. Yes, that’s it. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” This is Mary Oliver’s essential definition of poetry, which she gives at the end of her manual, A Poetry Handbook. This definition, which takes faith into consideration, is also sustained by it so as to understand the value and meaning of words. In some ways it is as if prayer were called into question to explain to us what poetry really is. In addition, in her verses Oliver refers to the holy words (Percy [Four]) of a prayer, to the religious rites; indeed, some of her poems are prayers.
The fact that her work has rarely been translated is due to the wish of the poet herself who did not grant permission for her work to be translated because she was not able to accurately verify the result. In our journal we spoke of her work in 2007, observing in her verses the search for a grace in a very distinct way, yet comparable with the literary work of two other great contemporary poets, Mark Strand and Louise Glück.
Attention and simplicity
Mary Oliver’s writing is inextricably bound up with her observations of nature, which commenced every day at five o’clock in the morning, the time when she woke and began her daily walk in the woods taking along her notebook. These walks were well known among the inhabitants of Provincetown, who were accustomed over the years to seeing the writer out wandering then stopping and looking, motionless, focusing in on some detail that had stirred her interest and then she would begin jotting down notes on what she had observed. Indeed, her approach to poetry commenced with extraordinary attention to the outside world, a directing of the gaze repeatedly reaffirmed and encouraged by the compositions themselves.
The greatest tension present in her poetry seems to be that which leads to the dialectical confrontation between the poetic-lyric self on the one hand, and the more objective dimension of existence on the other. The reconciliation of this dialectic is found in a sort of open and inclusive interiority toward the world, which enters the verse with great force. This happens thanks to a power of vision that turns Oliver’s eye away from subjective responses to focus on what falls under her eyes. Consequently, life is fixed with intensity or contemplated with amplitude in search of a sense, of an opening, of a mystery or an expectation of grace; her poetry is a reaction to the grace of life.
This is confirmed by Mary Oliver in the introduction to her Long Life: “And that is just the point: how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’” It is what we could call “attention.” Here is Oliver’s existential posture: I bow down / participate and attentive, she writes in On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate. Here the poet finds in this attention – somehow sisterly to Simone Weil – a first form of faith, In the Storm she says: Belief isn’t always easy. / But this much I have learned – / if not enough else – to live with my eyes open.
Mary Oliver lived poetry as a full-time occupation. Following a series of earlier publications, she rose to fame with the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for American Primitive in 1984, and from that moment on the poet from Ohio became an author with a wide following, beloved by a public of readers of every cultural origin and social class, and highly regarded in the academic and critical field. While she rarely agreed to the numerous requests for interviews from newspapers and television programs – saying she preferred to let her writing speak for itself – she did accept many invitations to conferences and readings in various universities throughout the United States.
The reasons for such wide success are to be found in her use of a direct, colloquial language and a clear, simple style, with which the poet directly addresses the reader after interpreting images seen or sounds heard. The appeal is to prove oneself, to completely review one’s own life, to recover one’s own authenticity and immediacy, to abandon false turns and wrong objectives. Hers is a poetry that questions, without fear of indicating an answer, one’s own conduct, for the attainment of a harmonious and peaceful condition of life that is reintegrated into the context of nature of which we are part but from which we have become wrongly detached.
Her creative intuition is thus born by virtue of an external vision, without her own inner states being projected onto reality. She stared at the world, returning its glorious and reconciling vision, perceiving, from the concrete experience, the echo of the beginning, the call of Creation.
The celebration of the world
In light of such a vast number of poems, it is still possible to present those verses that best exemplify the fundamental elements of the American writer’s vision of the world.
In the same way as the poetry of Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and even Elizabeth Bishop, the natural world catalyzes the contents of verses, where it is rare to come across human figures, if not the poet herself describing her experience as viewer. Indeed, one might add that the classic dichotomy between nature and culture, as addressed by Mary Oliver, is sharpened and resolved without lingering, with a total alliance in favor of the natural world, as an embodiment of wisdom, patience, humility and harmony, as well as an expression of dazzling beauty. In this sense her poetry is heir to the great American tradition from Whitman onward.
Her poetry is simple, immediate, and as polished as a pebble in a flowing river, but able to unfold ways of seeing and to lead the reader to intense interior discoveries. Her gaze, attentive to the natural world, finds there a unique beauty that her poems render unforgettable. Indeed, the end of the poem itself creates a relationship of affection with reality: My work is to love the world, she writes in Messenger: a world made of sunflowers, hummingbirds and blue plums…
The soul and landscape correspond, and writing poetry for Mary Oliver means to give praise in the Franciscan sense. Her key word is gratitude. Even when life offers a box of darkness, this can eventually turn out to be a gift, she writes in The Use of Sorrow. In the mystery of existence there is an invincible grace. Visions of reality and imagination blend and unfold to a pause for meditation on life. But imagination and grace are in turn joined as the poet says in On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate.
Why I Wake Early is a poem which abruptly introduces us to what may be considered the distinctive characteristic of Mary Oliver’s poetry: the celebration of the world. A world with its natural elements, in this case the sun, observed and interpreted as a magnificent vital power, as a creative energy that works for a continual renewal, for the ceaseless and joyous process of ongoing creation: Hello, sun in my face, / Hello, you who make the morning / and spread it over the fields / and into the faces of the tulips / and the nodding morning glories.
It is a world for which it is worth rising early and whose extraordinary nature attracts, astonishes, makes happy, consoles to the point that the poet’s greeting bursts forth with delight and praise. Every morning / the world / is created, begins Morning Poem, carrying on with the same celebrating line of reality, whose concrete data, in this case the morning, the sun, the awakening, refer to the echo of the beginning, become a mirror of the glory of creation, a true exaltation of the abundance of a reality, whose seduction seems impossible to escape, a world “charged with the grandeur of God,” to use the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet read and loved by Mary Oliver, and by whom she was inspired without doubt when rewriting Psalm 145 in On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate: Glory / to the rose and the leaf, to the seed, to the /silver fish. Glory time and the wild fields.
In the poem titled This World, ants, peonies, spider webs, music from the leaves of the trees are all natural realities which live a condition of perfect happiness and harmony, which the poet is called on to recognize, admire and celebrate. Here is a sort of parallel universe, endowed with its own laws and its own language, which we can hear only if we rediscover in ourselves the innate capacity for astonishment and wonder. Therefore, as the final verses of poetry declare, stones are more meaningful and happier on the seashore, rather than set in gold; that is, reduced to slavery by the blind arrogance of a man who tries to assimilate and devour the natural world, the depositary of an authentic and spontaneous wisdom, lived without intellectual mediation.
In Black Oaks, the voice of ambition tempts the poet and tries to push her to do and to have more, instead of wandering in the oak woods, lashed by the rain. But the answer remains firm in reiterating the importance of delay, idleness, slow rhythm; unique possibilities of getting a clear vision and empathizing with the majestic patience and solidity of the admired oaks: And to tell the truth I don’t want to let go of the wrists of idleness, / I don’t want to sell my life for money, / I don’t even want to come in out of the rain. Wandering among the oaks is much more important and worthier of consideration than a life whose goals are success and gain; Oliver’s poetry indicates, if not exhorts the reader to an alternative and counter-cultural style of life compared to the dominant social model.
In In Praise of Craziness, of a Certain Kind, the poet recalls her grandmother’s care in rolling out newspapers on the porch floor, so that the ants could be heated underneath. And it is precisely a thoughtful, kind, attentive disposition, one which claims an indispensable existential demand to listen to the voice of the world, to learn from it, to return to being part of it. This disposition to listen is well exemplified in Mockingbirds where the song of a pair of mockingbirds calls to mind the image of an old couple who in ancient Greece had opened their door to two strangers without hesitation, who then discover they were deities. It is my favorite story – / how the old couple / had almost nothing to give but their willingness / to be attentive – / but for this alone / the gods loved them /and blessed them.
The couple showed care, attentiveness to the other, openness. The listening and the way of seeing suggested by Mary Oliver therefore entail a kindness that is experienced not as a formal courtesy, but as a tension toward the other, capable of recognizing a link between all creatures and the presence of the sacred in the world.
In Entering the Kingdom the human figure – that of the poet who wanders through the woods – is perceived by the crows as a threat, for their intuition not only of a “biological difference” but also of a spiritual distance: They know me for what I am. /No dreamer, /No eater of leaves.
To enter the kingdom a willingness to attentiveness, to openness, to wonder is necessary: ??it is necessary to break the chains of a rationalistic and scientific approach to reality and instead to abandon oneself to the enchantment and authenticity of a primitive and wild dimension. And the dream of the poet’s life is precisely that of entering the natural kingdom, of plunging into it; to slowly enjoy peace and harmony, continuing to learn from it: The dream of my life / Is to lie down by a slow river / And stare at the light in the trees – / To learn something by being nothing / A little while but the rich / Lens of attention.
Nature and transcendence
Attention directed to a world outside the self is the necessary attitude for human beings to renew their awareness of belonging to the family of things, as found in the splendid finale of Wild Geese. This is without doubt the most famous poem of this American writer. Here Oliver communicates the sense of the power of imagination, capable of empowering realistic detail in the direction of a meaning and a vocation in a broad cosmic context: You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves. / Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on. / Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain / are moving across the landscapes, / over the prairies and the deep trees, / the mountains and the rivers. / Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, / are heading home again. / 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.
The simplicity of this poem’s assumption is precisely what empowers its ability to disclose a vision, permeated by grace, of the world, seen inexhaustibly as fresh and precious (Wage Peace). Oliver suspends all forms of asceticism or voluntarism to achieve a deep self-reappropriation. The appeal to recognize the “soft animal” condition of one’s body must not be misunderstood. There is no reductionism here. There is, if anything, a desire to recognize each other – as Ungaretti writes in the poem The Rivers (I fiumi) – as A docile fiber / Of the universe (Una docile fibra / Dell’universo). The poet of the Karst region of Italy wrote: My torment / It is when / I do not believe it / In harmony (Il mio supplizio / È quando / Non mi credo / In armonia). Oliver’s appeal is to avoid this torment, to feel the creaturely harmony as docile fiber, as soft animal, inside the cosmos, recognizing the original, “ontological” vivacity of things.
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet loved by Oliver, as mentioned before. In Wild Geese, in particular, there is a sense of a vocation to being, in which there is nothing abstract. The call of the geese is wild, because they are such. Hopkins in his verses combined various words with wild– such as wilderness, wildflowers, wildfire… The sense of the vocation to being has something indomitable, a magnetic power about it. In Oliver this sense of the wild is combined with a cosmic harmony, the family of things which brings together opposites: harshness and excitement.
This vision can only happen when humans, paying attention to the nature which surrounds them, learn from it and recognize themselves as creatures, brothers and sisters. For example, the human being can discover a relationship with the little sparrow with the pink beak, in the poem Just Lying on the Grass at Blackwater: All afternoon / I grow wiser, listening to him, / soft, small, nameless fellow at the top of some weed, / enjoying his life.
The sparrow’s song is read as a universal call to a different possibility of life, based on the acceptance of one’s own creatureliness lived with modesty and fullness, returned to the Creator’s hands. This is a condition of fulfillment with respect to existence which constitutes the highest lesson of happiness that nature can impart to humans: happiness is a key and frequently recurring word in Mary Oliver’s poetry. The same goes for the cricket in Song of the Builder, where the humble but tenacious effort of the small insect, intent on pushing the beans up the slope, downsizes even the highest and noblest purposes of the writer, sitting down in the grass to think about God.
Mary Oliver’s poetry encourages, therefore, a joyous and full acceptance of one’s own existence in the world, the unconditional consent to an earthiness understood as a gift, as an opportunity. It is a poetry that exhorts the reader, not without self-irony, to abandon deep thoughts and to hurry into a heavenly bright morning, made up of exquisite moments that follow each other, as she writes in Trying to be Thoughtful in the First Bright of Dawn. Her poems ponder the value of the gift received and unfold as a song of gratitude.
It is a poetry marked by a profound spirituality that gives voice to a soul that is tuned into the wavelength of transcendence through contact with nature. This religious tension emerges in much of her work, and certainly occupies a privileged place in her collection Thirst. Here, Oliver clearly states that the “physicality of the religious poets should not be taken idly” (Musical Notation: 1). However, it is not a pure and abstract sense of panic, but a real Christian religiosity that refers to a transcendent God: Lord, I would run for you, loving the miles for your sake. / I would climb the highest tree / to be that much closer, she writes in Coming to God: First Days. More specifically, the sense of closeness often returns: I wanted Christ to be as close as the cross I wear, she writes in More Beautiful than the Honey Locust Tree Are the Words of the Lord. Oliver’s work is radically sacramental. In the same poem she makes direct reference to liturgies; she frames the altar linen within a burning double perception of the eternity of God and of the simple day that passes, while loving both together. But the reference is also to the sacraments, to the Eucharist in particular as indicated by the long title of the poem The Vast Ocean Begins Just Outside. Our Church: The Eucharist.
Sacramentality is extended and involves, as also happens in Emily Dickinson’s poems, the elements of nature because “everything is His” (Musical Notation: 2). For example, it appears forcefully in the splendid verses of the prayer-poem Six Recognitions of the Lord in which we read: Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with / the fragrance of the fields and the / freshness of the oceans which you have / made, and help me to hear and to hold / in all dearness those exacting and wonderful / words of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying: / Follow me. Or as in the verses of the previously mentioned More Beautiful…: When I wake, and you are already wiping the stars away, / I rise quickly, hoping to be like your wild child / the rose, the honey–maker the honey–vine: / a bird shouting its joy as it floats / through the gift you have given us: another day.
Look, see, listen
The power of the world is therefore a vital energy inexorably attracting the poet’s ego to itself, distracting her from the temptation of a solipsistic inner withdrawal. It is precisely the amazement experienced in the presence of nature, of a marvelous “out-of-oneself,” to trigger the fuse of creativity, to become the irrepressible generative tension which finds its way into the poetic word, a sort of dazzle, a blow received from the outside, which unbalances and lets the music flow. It is not a coincidence that in Mary Oliver’s poetry the most common verbs are to look, to see and to listen.
In the presence of a reality perceived at the level of the senses without intellectual filters, the mediation of writing comes later, declaring its own inadequacy with humility. In the poem titled Stars, the poet, contemplating the starry sky, is dominated by an enchantment that condemns her to ineffability: How can I hope to be friends / with the hard white stars / whose flaring and hissing are not speech / but pure radiance?
It is difficult to dialogue or even more to compete with the hundred thousand pure contraltos which populate the world; voices that seem to overwhelm the human voice in harmony and relevance. Despite this, the advice repeated in Stars is always the same: Listen to the river, to the hawk, to the hoof, / to the mockingbird, to the jack–in–the–pulpit – / then I come up with a few words, like a gift.
Poetry, closely resembling the tenacious and careful observation of William Carlos Williams, can only be born in the moment that follows listening and looking: it becomes a report, a description of an encounter. Creativity presents the characteristics of an acceptance of an external word, which we are predisposed to receive as if it were a gift, not forgetting then to express profound gratitude for what we have just received. This is a celebrated gratitude of what is humble, small, ordinary, but which reveals its belonging to a greater and meaningful reality, if observed with the right focus of the gaze. And so, in While I Am Writing a Poem to Celebrate Summer, the Meadowlark Begins to Sing, the poet has nothing left but to modulate her voice to that of the lark, whose song is one of praise, an hallelujah directly addressed to the Creator. The natural world proves capable of perfect prayer, as in the case of the lily (as in the poem The Lily), whispering in a secret language (lily language) imperceptible words, which the poet strives to hear but in vain, even if it is not windy. Perhaps, Oliver meditates, the tongue of the lily is actually just the simple “being” of the flower: it just stands there / with the patience / of vegetables / and saints / until the whole earth has turned around. The enormous power of attraction on the part of nature, as well as beauty, is based on the fact that it is interpreted as a holder of truth, wisdom and knowledge, but also of that “holiness” the poet tries to draw from: a wisdom based on patience and acceptance of the harmonious laws of creation.
The song of the kingdoms
In Mary Oliver’s poetry, attention to nature releases a continuous vision. This is the case with First Snow where the slow fall of the first snow cover of winter calls to why, how, / whence such beauty and what / the meaning. But the temptation to intellectualize is immediately constrained by the ironic exclamation: such / an oracular fever! In fact, if nature imparts a teaching to us, this has to do with the spur to live the present with fullness, with joy and without postponement, relying on the knowledge of the senses, rather than on cerebral abstractions.
This does not mean pushing away the final questions, or ignoring the great lesson of death, of loss – of course / loss is the great lesson, the verses of Poppies declare – but trying to ensure that the extraordinariness of a world, enjoyed in the present, could be the most concrete, honest and constructive reply that we have at our disposal to death itself.
Mary Oliver’s poetry, far from being a celebration of the hic et nunc, sees in happiness, arising from the immersion in the river of earthly delight, a kind of holiness, / palpable and redemptive. What “saves” is therefore the maturation of an attitude, of a spiritual posture that informs the whole of our being, until it becomes a habitus, a way of life. A spiritual disposition capable, through the beauty of creation, of discovering and knowing the figure of the Creator. Death, in fact, often represented in these poems by the images of the hook, the owl or the intense blue darkness, never has the last word, and its horror cannot compete with a life lived with fullness.
The only weapon that human beings have against the destructive power of death is, therefore, to rediscover their own condition of belonging to a created totality, the beauty of which is synonymous with eternity. As the beautiful concluding verses of The Ponds illustrate, the poet senses a meaning that goes beyond the cyclical birth and death of all things: I want to believe I am looking / into the white fire of a great mystery. / I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing – / that the light is everything – that it is more than the sum / of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.
Before such mystery, here is her poetic response to life and death, found among the lines of the poetic prose that gives its name to the collection Thirst: “I have given a great many things / away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, / except the prayers which, with this thirst, / I am slowly learning.”
.Here are details of just two of the many anthologies of Mary Oliver’s work: New and selected poems, Boston, Beacon Press, 1992 and New and selected poems, vol. II, ibid., 2005. The last published collection of her work is Devotions. The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, New York, Penguin Press, 2017. Among her collected essays, in addition to A Poetry Handbook, also of note is Long Life. Essays and other writings, Cambridge (MA), Da Capo Press, 2004. In addition, there are two recordings of the poet reading some of her poems: At Blackwater Pond: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver, Beacon, Boston (MA), 2006 and Many Miles: Mary Oliver Reads Mary Oliver, ibid., 2010.
.Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, New York, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, 122.
.For a spiritual reading of her work see T. W. Mann, God of Dirt. Mary Oliver and the Other Book of God, Cambridge (MA), Cowley, 2004. Someone has even talked about the “Theology of Mary Oliver,” cf. http://serenityhome.wordpress.com/
.An exception is a handful of poems translated into Italian by Elena Buia: M. Oliver, “Poesie,” in Testo a fronte XLVII (2013) 115-129, and the Catalan translation, by Corina Oproae, Ocell Roig, Bilingual Edition. Godall Edicions, Barcelona, 2018.
.Cf. A. Spadaro, “Nuova poesia statunitense,” in Civ Catt 2007 II 447-460.
.M. Oliver, Long Life… op. cit. XIV.
.Cf. A. Spadaro, “‘Le verità attendono in tutte le cose’. La poesia di Walt Whitman,”Civilta Cattolica ibid. 2003 II 429-442 and Ibid., “‘Nell’immersione totale’. La poesia di Elizabeth Bishop”, ibid. 2006 III 354-366.
.Cf. A. Spadaro, “‘Vive in fondo alle cose la freschezza più cara’. La poesia di Gerard M. Hopkins,” in Civ Catt 2006 IV 234-247.
.M. Oliver, Dream Work, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986, 14.
.We suggest readers listen to the poem directly from Oliver’s voice in a video on YouTube: http://youtu.be/lv_4xmh_WtE.
.Ibid., Thirst, Boston, Beacon Press, 2006.
.For the reference to Dickinson and her sacramental attention, notwithstanding her puritan background, cf. A. Spadaro, “‘Nel cuore dell’enigma’. La poesia di Emily Dickinson,” in Civ. Catt. 2002 IV 356-369.
.Cf. A. Spadaro, “‘Nelle vene dell’America’. William Carlos Williams (1883-1963),” in Civ Catt 2003 III 221-234.