…but can never die. No true poet can.
And she was true, with a center of veracity and integrity that, inevitably, inspired spite on the part of some in the literary establishment, for the hardest thing for us writers to admit is that talent, alone, is not enough.
It all depends—writing, and life—on the quality of the spirit.
Mary Oliver’s spirit spoke boldly and plainly. I was startled, even frightened, when I read the first line of her famous poem, “Wild Geese”:
“You do not have to be good.”
Who says? The great poet who embraces all humanity under the injunction that we must “Love the mystery,” not try to solve it. And there are many mysteries, especially in the realm of loss, which Oliver knew well.
But there is never any self-pity, instead, a rock New England hardness that probably put off some. In “Wild Geese,” she reminds that no matter how miserable you are, “The world offers itself to your imagination.” There’s no excuse for turning aside into depression, for
“Out of pain, and pain, and more pain
We feed the feverish pot”
from which good writing comes. Coleman Barks gets it when he interviews Oliver on the video linked here, claiming a little sheepishly that he has no questions to ask because he “assents to every line” Oliver has written. He gives an excellent example of the appropriate response of a gifted man to a gifted woman—which is rare.
Oliver wrote thirty books of poetry during her long life, continuing to write almost to the end. She won a Pulitzer Prize, sold a lot of books, and developed a devoted following. Her gift seems simple and yet it is neither simple nor common but the “confiding intimacy” of her great poems.
She will always be with us.
Above: Mary Oliver in conversation with Coleman Barks at the Lannan Foundation. Below: Mary Oliver reading from her work, introduction by Coleman Barks.
[View these videos and learn more on the Lannan Foundation website.]