Mary Oliver: In Memoriam
Poetry is a fickle thing, and its relationship with film may not be a readily apparent one. Yet, as director Sergei Eisenstein noted, “cinema has known such a severe responsibility for each shot, admitting it into a montage sequence with as much care as a line of poetry is admitted into a poem.” Much of poetry is about evoking strong emotions through descriptive language, or through all manner of poetic devices to manipulate it in pursuit of capturing something prose cannot. It is a precise form, something that Eisenstein saw and related to filmmaking. A poet is as precious about every word and line as a director is about each shot and scene. Furthermore, anyone who writes, be it for the page or screen, owes a debt to the many poets who have expanded what we thought was possible to do with language. And so, with her passing today at the age of 83, the world has lost a voice of immeasurable talent in poet Mary Oliver.
When I was first taught about poetry in middle school, it seemed like a style of writing that was reserved for long dead authors writing in a style alien from the English language that I was familiar with. Even so, there was something captivating about the way that poetry in all its forms and variations toyed with language. My interest grew as the years went on, and at some point in high school I discovered Mary Oliver. I do not know when exactly I first read her work, but I do know that the first poem of hers I remember reading was “Wild Geese.” My father had me read it during a particularly trying stretch of high school, and I still feel the chill and wonderment it inspired. It is a rousing call for self-acceptance, one that imbues the natural world with a surplus of emotive possibility, as Oliver often did in her poetry. She closes the poem with these words:
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.
Those lines helped me understand that poetry was no dusty art form, but rather a living and breathing force that could be harnessed by those who turn themselves over to it. In the ensuing years, my love of poetry has only grown, as has my love for everything Oliver wrote.
When I read the news earlier today that Oliver had died, I was struck by the same heartache that I usually feel when an artist I admire has passed: here ends the chance for new work from them. She published her first collection of poetry, No Voyage and Other Poems, in 1963, and for the ensuing decades released new work at a dizzying pace. At the time of her death, she had produced more than 30 collections of poetry, a writing career that anyone in any medium should be in awe of. Her themes of nature, spirituality, and taking the time to understand how the many facets and creatures of this world work together moved the genre of ‘Nature Poetry’ into exciting new territory. It is not that writers before her like Walt Whitman or Ralph Waldo Emerson had written on different themes, but rather that she took a tried and true subgenre and spun it into a worldview that easily traveled beyond the page. In an era of increasing climate crisis her words seemed to seek a humanity that saw our planet as precious and beautiful. In “Skunk Cabbage” she writes
these are the woods you love,
where the secret name
of every death is life again- a miracle
wrought surely not of mere turning
but of dense and scalding reenactment.
Even something as seemingly repulsive as skunk cabbage gave her access to a world of metaphors that she employed to revel in and examine all that nature was capable of.
Paired with her favorite themes, her imagery seems unrivaled in contemporary poetry. The poet is as indebted to images as the filmmaker, and the images that Oliver birthed to this world with her pen and paper rival anything that has been put to screen in terms of crispness and beauty. In one moment she writes how “The kingfisher rises out of the black wave / like a blue flower, in his beak / he carries a silver leaf” in “The Kingfisher,” and the next describes “how the morning itself appears / like a slow white rose” in “Every Morning.” It would be impossible to inspire the kind of devotion that her poetry has (she was the last “rockstar” of poetry, according to a friend and professor of mine) without the captivating imagery she used to house her ideas and themes, and she put it forth in droves. It even won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1984, and a National Book Award in 1992, establishing her legacy as one of those rare poets who garners both public popularity and universal critical acclaim.
As I mourn the loss of her voice, I am comforted by the reality that she leaves behind a lifetime of truly visionary work. Oliver once said that “poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.” There is little arguing that she did anything other than fill that basket until it flowed over with beauty and wisdom. I leave you now with but one bit of that beauty and wisdom, the poem “I Go Down to the Shore” taken from her 2012 collection A Thousand Mornings. It has long been one of my favorite poems, and one that I return to whenever I stumble across a day of sadness or pain.
I Go Down to the Shore
By Mary Oliver
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
Rest in peace Mary Oliver, and thank you for your words.