Stirring Waters: Thoughts on Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you.’ Communing with the sacred in our own lives, having a meaningful encounter with God, has been likened to drinking water from a fresh stream since time immemorial. Like many of you, I know, I am a fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry, being as she is a contemporary example of someone articulating the sacred through Nature – a bearer of that most important transcendental torch. It was not until quite recently though that I learned she is not just a good poet, but also a good writer of essays too. Last year she published a selection of essays in a book titled ‘Upstream’, and, as you would imagine, it is dripping with Nature. Here is an extract:

“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibility claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the wind-flower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect. Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

To me, this reads like a prayer, the best kind of prayer there is, the kind of prayer where you just take a deep breath and be still, and notice, and be aware. The kind of prayer in which you indwell place, indwell Nature, and appreciate the flowers, the freshness, the greenness. Mary Oliver’s work starts with a cheerful listening to the world. Its starts with Nature, and then gets to the writing. Nature is the primary concern, writing secondary. Mary Oliver is not using Nature to make her point, rather her work is an outworking of Nature.

Contrast this approach with W. G. Sebald’s ‘The Rings of Saturn’, which we thought about last week. What is Sebald’s relationship to place, to Nature, to Suffolk county? Sebald goes out walking; he comes to what is, for him, a place of note, that place then triggers for him reflections about some other subject matter, and it spirals out from there. Some have speculated that for Sebald these places are not in fact that significant, but rather merely serve a rhetorical purpose. When, for example, someone reads ‘The Rings of Saturn’, a common response is that to enhance your understanding of the book you feel you should go to some of these places Sebald mentions, and do some of the walks. Many have found though that this experience does not enhance their understanding. The reason for this is that ultimately, I think, the subject matter Sebald is exploring (which can be summed up as incomprehensible destruction) is divorced from the places in question. The places in Suffolk act merely as a kind of fishermen’s net, upon which Sebald hangs the ideas he is really interested in. This is so very different to Mary Oliver’s unfolding of Nature. Nature for Oliver is primarily both the concern in question, and the subject, both of her poetry and of ‘Upstream’, her book of essays. Mary Oliver even goes so far as to say she does not think of herself as a poet, but more as a kind of reporter, reporting back to her reader her transcendental experiences before Nature. And of course, this concern for Nature, for Mary Oliver, also ties into an ecological concern: the danger today, in our globalised, capitalist world, that we become increasingly separated from Nature, and subsequently view the fruits of Nature as commodities not intimately bound up with Nature, but oddly detached, and existing solely to be exploited. Because everything is viewed in mechanistic terms, we know how to quantify the value of produce brought forth, because that plays nicely into an economised worldview, but it is exceedingly more difficult for us to quantify harm done, as that is not affecting profit margins today. Therein lies the short-sighted destructive nature of unrestrained capitalism.

Mary Oliver’s strategy of thought for challenging our exploitative propensity towards Nature is not to hound her readers and say ‘Woe to Us, For the End is Nigh’, but rather, to show us the beauty of Nature, and invite us to commune with Nature as she has done. Or as she puts it, “[I] think you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” She hopes through her poems to remind us of what the Earth is meant to look like, to praise, and wonder, and a rekindling of that sacred connection, that primordial connection with Nature, and through that connection bring about a process of healing. Healing the self, and the land. In Mary Oliver’s book ‘Upstream’, when she is not talking directly about Nature, she is talking about those poets who have most influenced her, the four being: Rumi, the 13th Century Islamic poet, who wrote for example,

‘A lifetime without Love is of no account
Love is the Water of Life
Drink it down with heart and soul!’

- picking up the theme of the meaningful spiritual encounter being not unlike drinking water, being nourished, body, spirit, and mind. There are two other poets who we are very familiar with, William Wordsworth, and of course Ralph Waldo Emerson, and finally, and most significantly of all for Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman is the poet I have been thinking about most of this week, as he is the one I knew of least well. I really only knew that he was an American; I could picture him as a man with a very weathered look, a long mountainous beard, influenced a great deal by the transcendentalists, and greatly admired by Mary Oliver, and that was extent of my knowledge. I don’t think I had ever read any of his poetry before. So, I had a look, and this was the first poem I came across:  ‘Are you the person drawn towards me?’ By Walt Whitman.

‘Are you the person drawn towards me?’
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?

This strikes me as being a great introduction to the man. I pictured this rugged, romantic figure, lover of nature, looking straight at me, and declaring right from the offset, ‘I am not what I seem. I am not this two-dimensional façade, there is more to me. There is a secret’. From this briefest of glimpses, it made considerably more sense to me when in Mary Oliver’s essay about Walt Whitman, she described him as the brother she never had growing up. A poet who, when you read him, it was as if he was letting you into a secret. Oliver explains that for Walt Whitman a poem was like a temple, a place to enter, a place to feel. I think this explanation captures it very well. A Whitman poem is not just a collection of well-crafted words on a page, it is much more visceral; you enter the poem, you experience the poem, you feel the poem. It’s much more like being in a physical place, and experiencing something tangible, not just words.

This then begins to explain the profound power Mary Oliver sees in poetry. When she talks about wanting to be that tiny nail of use, she is talking of course about the use she can be to this universe through her poetry. Through her poetry can she convince us to take nature seriously, to find our own transcendental connection to God, to treat nature with the respect it deserves, and so on… Can she have a meaningful impact upon this world, just through the power of poetry? She believes it can, because it did for her. She came from a broken family – a negative and very destructive background, sexual abuse, avoiding home, the whole thing - but through nature and through poetry, in particular Walt Whitman’s poetry, she found a world where she could breath and find herself. Walt Whitman probably appealed so much because he first of all spoke the language of Nature, but secondly, he too was a person who made a great deal out of his life, despite his disadvantaged background. He was only schooled till the age of eleven, despite today being regarded as American poet number one, the father of American poetry. There is a coming together of lament, of pain, of processing all that has happened, but through words there is healing, through nature, there is healing. There is a discovery of that spirit one can tap into, the Spirit of God, of Nature, the deer who longs for the flowing streams.