Upon the Passing of a Favorite Poet

This week, the world lost one of America’s best poets when 83-year-old Mary Oliver died. I still remember when I first discovered her poetry, perhaps 15 or 20 years ago. I found her poems to be rich with meaning but not abstruse, honest with depth of feeling but not depressing, and beautifully descriptive yet so much more than mere observation.

My soul thrilled. Here was a writer—a poet!—who spoke of trees, flowers, the beach, and so many other aspects of nature as I experienced them, as though through a special relationship. (But let’s be honest: I detest ants and snakes, while she very obviously did not.) She knew how to convey the excitement and intimacy of the soul’s connection to nature. I sensed often in Mary’s poems a longing to discover and understand the reason for that spiritual connection, and she was on the right track when it turned her toward thoughts of the Creator. He is the reason the soul delights at natural beauty, the intricacy of all living things, and even the intellectual creativity of capturing it in a poem.

My all-time favorite Mary Oliver poem is “Goldenrod,” published in New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992). The poet was “just minding my own business” when the “glittering pandemonium” of some wild goldenrod—“sneeze-bringers” though they are—beckoned to her. “I don’t suppose anything loves it,” she mused. But I love it, and gathered it from its home “on roadsides, in fall fields, in rumpy branches, saffron and orange and pale gold,” for my bridesmaids’ bouquets on my wedding day.

One of her books I’ve found myself returning to time and again is White Pine (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994). It contains several other of my favorites, both bursting with the idea of fresh, new life hidden in autumn. One of those poems came to mind when I found out Mary Oliver had died, and I had no trouble finding it in the book because I had marked it with a dried oak leaf in one of my own autumns-gone-by. The poem is entitled “Fall,” and my favorite line is its last: “…breaking open the silence / then the rain dashing its silver seeds against the house.” Appropriately, as I write this afternoon, cold, silver rain is dashing against my house, and a vivid rainbow has broken open the gray mist.

Finally, let me share a few lines from “Fletcher Oak,” also marked in White Pine with a brown oak leaf. The poem is reverent and serene, like the trees and pre-dawn experiences it describes. I love the poet’s act of gathering acorns and imagining “inside of them, the pale oak trees,” and her comparison of the tree’s growth like that of “a slow and beautiful poem.”

Thank you, Mary Oliver, for sharing your gift so freely with the world, and with me. Thank you for your insights and inspirations. I will miss your voice. And like you, “I don’t know if I will ever write another poem. I don’t know if I am going to live for a long time yet, or even for a while. But I am going to spend my life wisely. I’m going to be happy, and frivolous, and useful.”

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