Why You Should Not Underestimate Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver gave me a great gift, though it only came after her death in January. I had often heard her name in sermons and with hushed awe among my tribe at the Festival of Faith and Writing. But I always thought her a bit too tame. She wrote a book on dogs! How domestic!

Mary had dismissive critics who actually read her as well. Margalit Fox’s obituary for Oliver in the New York Times quotes a cruel dig from the NYT Book Review poetry columnist, David Orr. He called her a writer “about whose poetry one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.” Fox herself describes Oliver’s poetry as “unadorned,” “accessible,” “pedagogical,” and “homiletic,” all words that don’t exactly set the heart aflutter.

But Oliver’s death sent me into my local independent bookseller, (The Book Bin—go there!), to pick up a volume of her poetry. There had been a run on her books so I took what was given, Felicity, a 2015 collection.

There is a blessed lightness to Oliver’s poems. I could see why she might be misjudged by the super serious. In these poems of later life, she is walking along the beach watching swans fly by:

So listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly.

Take from it what you can.

—‘Whistling Swans’

It is so simple a moment. And there is no artifice to her language. It conveys just what it must—a deep trust that the wide, wide universe, which we will never comprehend, is yet able to speak.

Yes, I know, God’s silence never breaks, but is

that really a problem?

There are thousands of voices, after all

—‘Whistling Swans’

And this trust is no substitute for bravery and adventure, traits which Oliver displays in scads. As in ‘Moments’:

There is nothing more pathetic than caution

when headlong might save a life,

even, possibly, your own.

Or in ‘I did think, let’s go about this slowly’:

This is important. This should take

some really deep thought. We should take

small thoughtful steps.


But, bless us, we didn’t.

There are meditations on companionship and love, the held hand, the smile of one’s familiar. There are creatures living comfortably in land, sea, and air. And through it all a God who is on slant display:

Every day has something in

It whose name is Forever.

—‘Everything That Was Broken’

This last poem inspired a poem of my own last week. A gift from her. One of many from this underestimated soul. It was an act of such felicity.

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