Opinionista Alan Storey 22 January 2019

Finally comes the Poet: A tribute to Mary Oliver

The poet Mary Oliver died last week. Although I am not sure it’s ever accurate to declare a poet dead, especially Oliver. The poems she bravely nudged from her nest fly freely under every sky in the hearts of millions.

Oliver was a good guide. She will forever remain a good guide. With her help, many have been taught:

to see,
to listen,
to feel,
to weep,
to hope,
to be brave
and above all to be present to what is.

To read her poetry is like a giant inhalation of silver air.

With her words, she could thread our camel-like thoughts through the eye of a needle. By focusing our attention on the almost hidden, and the too often unnoticed incarnations of life, she helped us appreciate the largeness of life. Of her own dwelling place, she wrote it is “no more than a blue comma on the map of the world but, to me, the emblem of everything”.

With her magnetic verse, she would draw her reader in and then do with her words what no magnet could do — she would hold positive and negative so tightly together, that the reader is left wondering, which is which. In a single sentence Oliver could leave us both sad and elated, hopeful and devastated, settled and rattled, affirmed and uncomfortable, interrogated and counselled, condemned and forgiven; blessed and burdened.

Listen to this sentence of blessing and burden: “A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world and the responsibility of your life.”

Oliver would shine a blinding light in our eyes while shining a purifying light into our heart. She would get us to surrender control asking us to kneel in the damp green grass and she would get us to row ourselves over a raging waterfall rather than surrender to cynicism.

Her sentences could squeeze truth, liberating and healing truth, out of a dewdrop caught in a spider’s web. Listen to her: “We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.” Listen again: “There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied”. Let these words wash up on the shoreline of your inner seas for a while … and then pray … which according to Oliver simply means to be attentive.

But her greatest gift, and I guess the ultimate gift of every great artist, is to gift her reader with a sense of being in conversation with someone other than herself; someone greater than herself. In the depths of the reader’s heart, her words could ignite a life-giving conversation with Fire and Spirit.

Poetry is a life-cherishing force,” she would write about her own craft, “For poems are not words, after all, but fire for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

Interestingly, those whom the ancient Hebrews called prophets the ancient Greeks called poets. Poets are the seers of new worlds and their speech strong to shatter the old and birth the new. No wonder Walt Whitman, in his poem, Leaves of Grass, unashamedly announces:

After the seas are all crossed, (as they seem already crossed)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplished their work
After the noble inventors
After the scientists
The chemists
The geologist
Ethnologist
Finally shall come the poet worthy of the name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs

The world needs the poet above all else because they alone dare to do the daring deed that is most difficult to do, and yet most necessary to be done. The poet tells the truth. The poet speaks the truth about our deathliness — within us and around us. They face death — not with spear and shield. No, the poet stands naked before death, but for the words loaded in the slingshot of their tongue. The poet proclaims that things are worse than we think they are! We thought we were just lost, but the poet tells us that we are dead, in fact, worse than dead because we think we are still alive. Every poet knows a pulse does not a life make. They shout out that that is not rain falling outside but the tears of the gods grieving for our unlived lives.

In Oliver’s poem, The Kookaburras she comes out and says it in the first line: “In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.” The poem traces the cruelty that flows from such hearts. In her poem, The Sun she takes her time tracing the journey of sunset and sunrise before she reaches her deadly judgement: “… have you too gone crazy for power, for things?”

What makes a poet’s truth-telling so daring is that we live in a world in deep denial of death. Disturbingly relevant for our world and land today is W.H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939 in which he faces the fascism others dare not mention:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

I think we deny death for two reasons: 1) We know we are somehow complicit in the death-dealing of this world. We know we are not innocent. There is blood under our fingernails and rather than own our guilt and accept our responsibility we shrug, “Death? What death?” 2) When we are unable to imagine an alternative to the deathliness of our living we are so afraid of getting stuck in despair — the sense that there is only death — that we rather live in denial. Another popular form of death denialism is rooted in the widespread false belief that you can destroy death by finding some scapegoat to sacrifice. But death is deepened, not defeated, by the taking of life. History holds these statistics bluntly for all to blush.

It is here — the place of death and denial and despair and more death that the poet must finally come.

The poet is able to face our death squarely and without fear of despair because the poet knows death needn’t have the final word. Other possibilities exist. For the poet, other possibilities always exist. Every artist would say amen to Emily Dickinson when she writes:

I dwell in possibility
A fairer House than Prose
More numerous of Windows
Superior — for doors

The poet invites us to make our home in possibility. Possibility, not certainty. Certainty is the currency of the fearful fanatic. A possibility is riskier but truer than certainty. This is not a Pollyanna type of possibility that says, “Smile God loves you” or “Everything will be okay in the end. If it is not okay it is not the end”. Rather the poet knows, with Rebecca Solnit that “the future is dark, with darkness as much of the womb as the grave”. Oliver was adamant the difference in darkness would be determined by how we live “our one wild and precious life”. She would return us to the essence of life again and again:

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”.

Warning us:

And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”

Finally, when Oliver writes of when death comes, she touches a longing within us all:

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.”

Thank you, Mary, for watering the desire within us to be good at being alive. DM

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