When I heard the news about the death of poet Mary Oliver, I shouted “No!” at the TV. It was as if I’d lost a friend, one I turned to for inspiration and solace. The millions of readers who love Oliver’s work will understand. Those who don’t know her may wonder why she is so popular. Some critics have carped about her conversational style, her simple topics (an owl’s “binocular eyes,” a rabbit’s fur, the rocks and forests of her beloved Cape Cod). Yet Oliver, who disdained PR hoopla and shied away from interviews, became that rarity – a best-selling poet. The author of some 30 books, she also won the Pulitzer Prize.
It’s Oliver’s very simplicity that helped make her so popular. Her attention to – and ecstatic pleasure in – Nature. But that simplicity covers, like a thin veil, haunting thoughts about the brevity of life, as well as its beauty. In a poem ostensibly about the delights of a summer day she asks, “Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?” And she challenges us with what are perhaps her most famous lines:
What is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I teach writing classes, with an emphasis on memoir. If I give students an assignment to write a nonfiction piece or to attempt fiction, they eagerly dive in. But if I challenge them to try poetry, they invariably draw back, daunted. Does it have to have a certain format, they wonder, unsure of poetic structures. And how can they rise to the eloquent verbal height they think is demanded? One woman raised her hand to ask timidly, “Is it okay if I don’t use rhyme?” Oliver, herself, didn’t rhyme. She wrote in blank verse, which is more freeing. And her “eloquence” lies not in lofty language, but the longing beneath the words.
Often I answer my students by referring them to Oliver’s work (and to Billy Collins, who is similarly accessible). These students are surprised to find that the language is like someone talking to them in ordinary speech. nothing flowery. As rhapsodic as her feelings were about nature, Oliver could also write with piercing directness about the parents who failed her, and about the loss of her beloved partner, photographer Mary Malone Cook, after some forty years together. ”She spoke to our hearts,” a reader says.
In class this week I will talk of Oliver, and how she found inspiration by walking in the woods or on the beach, always – I’ll stress – with a notebook! I will reassure my students that whether writing poetry or prose, they should speak not only to hearts – but from their own – with courage and candor, as she did.
One of my most talented students, Roberta Koepfer, is a retired science professor.She’s now venturing – and adventuring – into new territory by writing her first poems. Her lovely haiiku sums up our loss:
A poet has died
Although I never met her
We met every day
BOOKS: Widow’s Walk – available through iUniverse.com; Turning Toward Tomorrow –Xlibris.com; Ten Women of Valor and Role Play available through CreateSpace.com and Amazon.com; also Amazon Kindle.