People usually know Mary Oliver’s famous quote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life” before they become acquainted with her poetry, or even the poem that it’s from. The quote is plastered on journals, tote bags, and probably tattooed on ribcages around the country. Oliver takes her pen off the page and looks straight at the reader when she asks that question. And really, what is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? Has there ever been a more serious and more urgent question?
While I came to Oliver’s poetry through that quote, my love for her extends far beyond her sound-bites. She is a poet enamored with wonder and seeing the potential in every day.
In her imagistic poems, Oliver clearly uses nature as her canvas. Her poems usually describe an incident in nature–on object of study–and then end with a whammo-beautiful proclamation on life, the universe, and everything. She’s so good at crafting earnest words that the larger proclamations don’t seem contrived. In the poem Wild Geese, Oliver uses a squawking flight of geese to connect us all to the “everything” that surrounds us.
Or, sometimes, she describes nature just to relish in it. Take her poem August. Reading it is like taking a bite out of a succulent August day, the taste of which unexpectedly returns to you when you read the poem in December.
She also doesn’t underestimate the importance of the human body, or the vessel through which we experience the natural world. We can become one with the world through our body–and it’s not always about souls, goodness, our immortal spirits. Not that there’s anything wrong with John Donne but it’s nice to have a woman poet say yes, your body, it’s good, too.
The poem I’ve been thinking about a lot is “When Death Comes” because yes, it’s quotable, but also because it’s immensely brave.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
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
Maybe this is the most Oliver of them all. Using nature as a way to appreciate life, and finding wonder through natural surroundings. That’s the point of keeping your eyes wide open, of thrusting yourself into new experiences, of traveling. It’s a matter of staving away complacency. It’s a matter of being married to amazement, as she says. Oliver thinks that we become part of the world through finding connections with our surroundings, but for me, that idea can be extended beyond nature to connections with other human beings.
Another thing I particularly admire about Mary Oliver is that her poems are, well, palatable. They’re accessible on the first read, and just keep getting better. They’re the kinds of poems you’d want to send to your friend who doesn’t read poetry but needs to be lifted up, or the poems you’d send to your friend who does like poetry and wants a break from deciphering Auden. What I mean to say is that she is an utter delight–and that’s okay. Poetry doesn’t have to be an exercise in clenching your brain muscles and eking out meaning.