Why People Love Mary Oliver: And how poetry gives meaning to life
Updated: Nov 12, 2022
Mary Oliver was not a great critical success , for reasons given from a sort of nationally institutionalized misogyny to her persistent focus on the natural world. Still, she has been called "America’s most beloved poet." Her critical weaknesses as a poet were also her greatest strengths in gaining popularity among the masses. While a popular poem does not necessarily make a good poem, there is something to be said for poetry that speaks to people in a way at which many critical successes fail.
A spiritual teacher of mine once said that "poetry is the language of the gods," as it communicates through emotion, which is how we find our place in the world, among the gods of the natural world, and with the people around us, our communities. After the recent and devastating end (for me) to a thirteen and a half year relationship, I took solace in poetry: writing it, and also reading it, especially Mary Oliver’s poems and poetic prose. I was envious of her long lasting and loving relationship with Molly Malone Cook, or "M.," as she referred to her in writings and interviews. Grateful, too, that she had that loving foundation from which she could explore her world through poetry, and then shared it with the world without requiring much in return.
Shortly after I arrived to the area known as the "Ancient Way" I began occasionally attending a poetry group in El Morro called Zuni Mountain Poets. Some of the regular attendees had been coming to the group for upwards of 25 years. Meeting on Sunday mornings, the group often overflowed the tiny space where we meet in the loft of a local favorite café. The ages of the people ranged from mid-teens to at least 70s, maybe even older. Among the people older than myself I witnessed how poetry has a way of helping people "age gracefully," with a courage to acknowledge the full spectrum of life, from birth to death.
At Zuni Mountain Poetry events I found there unfolded a detailed and awe-inspiring picture of this beautiful place we were privileged to live in. Much of the poetry read there reflected our daily life beside each other and with the natural world, revealing a depth of spiritual connection with the land in ways that are indescribable through any other means but poetry. Even if people have no belief in anything greater than themselves, everyone had had the experience of something indescribable — the deep blueness of the sky, the way a tree connects with both earth and sky, the way the land welcomes the rain after a long, dry spell… Poetry can approach the unapproachable through the language of deep emotion evoked into words that may not make sense in our minds, but often touches our hearts.
I almost always felt the presence with this group of poets of what could be called "the philosophy of Mary Oliver," who so often reflected on the natural world around her, showing gratitude, and taking refuge there from a difficult life. Sarah Todd, in the magazine Quartzy, wrote after Oliver’s death (in January of of 2019):
"The solace so many find in Oliver’s poems has everything to do with her ability to convey the joy of connectedness, of moving, even temporarily, beyond the limitations of self-consciousness into an experience of something unquestionably bigger."
Through language, poetry draws real connections between things and concepts ordinarily difficult to perceive, but that point to the ultimate interconnectedness of all things, "living" and "non-living." In many ways, we all search for that "joy of connectedness," so hard to find in this modern world. Social media ultimately fails to adequately provide the kind of connection humans seek, and it favors those who choose an urban life, which requires a degree of physical disconnection in order to function.
Out together in the "Ancient Way," we brought each other firewood when needed, honored passings from this existence to the next; we offered water to those without, and solace and support to those who are ill. In that physical, sometimes gritty, connection between land and people lies a kind of poetic manifestation. Poetry that arises from this may not gain success among literary critics, but through its accessibility to the basic human need for this connection it will transcend criticism and help us feel grateful for, maybe even inspired by, where we are on the planet at this time.