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The Beautiful Wisdom of Poet Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver received many accolades during her career, including the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1984 and the National Book Award in 1992. But her poetry went far beyond awards. Her poems were — and remain — loved by her loyal readers, who helped make her one of the bestselling poets in the United States.

The relative simplicity of Oliver’s poetry makes it accessible. It is neither highbrow nor pretentious, and so appeals to a wide audience. That’s not to say, however, that her poetry lacks depth or insight — far from it. Like one of her major literary influences, William Blake, Oliver explores big existential questions using simple language that nonetheless provides a depth of meaning.

The characters in Oliver’s poems, meanwhile, are rarely human. Instead, nature takes center stage, whether it be moss, geese, dogs, waves, or grasshoppers. Oliver was very much at one with nature, and was famous for her daily walks in the woods or along the coast or riverbank. Much of her poetry focuses on the intersection between the human world and the natural world; the poet Maxine Kumin said that Oliver’s poems stood on “the line between earth and sky, the thin membrane that separates human from what we loosely call animal.” By paying attention to nature, Oliver was able to combine profound introspection with moments of sheer joy, while at the same time commenting on the human condition.

When Oliver passed away in 2019 at the age of 83, tributes poured in from across the globe, including from famous fans such as Maria Shriver, John Waters, and Hillary Clinton. Oliver left us with an amazing body of work, which, along with her infrequent interviews, has given us a treasure trove of quotes to remember her by.

The song you heard singing in the leaf when you were a child is singing still.

Animals praise a good day, a good hunt. They praise rain if they’re thirsty. That’s prayer. They don’t live an unconscious life, they simply have no language to talk about these things. But they are grateful for the good things that come along.

Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

I said once, and I think this is true, the world did not have to be beautiful to work. But it is. What does that mean?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

In this universe we are given two gifts: the ability to love, and the ability to ask questions. Which are, at the same time, the fires that warm us and the fires that scorch us.

Poetry is one of the ancient arts, and it begins as did all the fine arts, within the original wilderness of the earth.

You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.

People need to remember that there is always a family of things, especially when they haven’t got a good one of the usual kind.

If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like.

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

One thing I do know is that poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn't be fancy. I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now are, they sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn't necessary shouldn't be in a poem.

The only record I broke in school was truancy.

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.

What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?

If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics. He’s the forest, He’s the desert. He’s the ice caps, that are dying. He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement.

Listen. Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?

Photo credit:  Andrew Draper/ Unsplash

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About the Author
Tony Dunnell
Tony is an English writer of non-fiction and fiction living on the edge of the Amazon jungle.
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