WriterSalon is Offline

Sorry for the inconvenience

Mary Oliver: The Natural World


by Raluca Ostoia


    Mary Oliver is a contemporary poet born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a semi-rural suburb of Cleveland on September 10 th , 1935. She is revered for her poetry, winning both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Mary Oliver has spent sixty-seven years of her life writing poetry. She reaped inspiration from the late poet Edna St. Vincent Millay when she spent years of her early life organizing Edna’s works with the writer’s sister, Norma St. Vincent Millay whom she quickly befriended. This experience holds significant bearings throughout Mary Oliver’s poetry and themes. Her first full collection of poems was published in 1963, when Oliver was only twenty-eight years old. For her schooling, she attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College in the fifties but did not receive a degree from either of the two colleges.

    Most of Mary Oliver’s work garners inspiration from nature and the “sense of wonder” it inculcates in her. Many of her themes focus on the wondrous abstraction of nature and focus to guide her readers through the natural world. Fuel for her writing comes from combination of memories from her childhood home of Ohio and her current home of Provincetown, New England. Her inspiration lies in her observations of the natural world as she comes across them herself. The style Oliver uses in her writing allows a cavernous and intimate look at the world. Her poems vividly and repeatedly suggest the deeper and underlying relationships between human beings themselves as well as alongside nature.

    Focused in from nature’s perspective, Oliver’s poem “The Journey” discusses the journey a person takes through life in order to burgeon into an individual. Initially the poem focuses on illuminating a well-known perspective on life, that conforming to adhere to the likes and dislikes of the masses is what has always been expected of every individual.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
However as the poem goes on it argues that not only are we able to go through life keeping our own identities and creating our own voices, but that it is imperative that we do so.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
As it nears an end it explains that once a person is able to step away from the strict expectations that society has set for them, not only have they freed themselves from the tight grips that control every move made “and the road full of fallen // branches and stones” but they have also stepped into a brighter as symbolized by the stars, and better world.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.
This new world is filled with new voices and is without people or their expectations to create a blockage of originality. The clouds have been burned away and we are free, saved by our own selves. Mary Oliver argues the very foundation of what human beings mindlessly thrive on; the expectation to conform. She dares to state that a person truly holds individuality within them. It might be demeaning and weak to live and go on in a society where everyone is expected to conform more or less the same way, but it is easy to do. She highlights this in her poem “You knew what you had to do, // though the wind pried // with its stiff fingers // at the very foundations.” In this case, the wind is change and change is extremely uncomfortable no matter what the circumstances are. To change paths in life and to leave the comfort of conforming can instill a feeling that the very foundation of life is being shaken. However once it is done, “But little by little, // as you left their voices behind, // the stars began to burn // through the sheets of clouds” there are brighter days ahead.

    This theme continues on in another poem by the name of “What Have I Learned So Far?” This poem is commemorated as one of Mary Oliver’s finest works, specifically because she reinstates an idea that can be traced throughout all of her pieces. She transcendentally argues that nature provides a person with peace and that such peace is hard to come across.

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.
Be ignited or be gone.
Mary Oliver was never shy about speaking exactly what was on her mind, or in this case writing it. Her daily meditations upon the hillside show dedication since it takes dedication to perform a task in which a person is able to find their deeper selves daily. She argues the point that if one is not truly committed to something, it does not matter how many times they insist they are, “Can one be passionate about the just, the // ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit // to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.” She is suggesting that it takes more than dipping a toe or even a foot in, she makes it imperative that a person dives headfirst into something they are genuinely passionate about. It takes dedication to keep fiery passion alive but it can begin as something quite small such as a seed, as written by Oliver herself, “All summations have a beginning, all effect has a // story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.” People hear one opinion, or watch one documentary, or read one article, and in their heads they somehow feel entitled to start believing and acting like their entire life up to that certain point has been focused in one this one thing. It is with the last sentence of the poem that Mary Oliver takes her final stance, “Be ignited or be gone.” It is short, simple, and painfully direct. She is yelling at everyone in a desperate effort to try to get them to wake up. People must live their lives only in accordance to what their passions are. Their drive should never be anything less than one hundred percent and that it is only through nature that this drive is found.

    In this last Oliver poem, more natural relationships are observed. This poem exactly like her other poems relies on a free verse structure to convey a simplistic type of structure, symbolic of the themes of nature that can so easily be found throughout her work.

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.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Oliver does not waste any time by dancing around the point, the poem begins direct, “You do not have to be good.” She does not waste her time telling the person reading the poem what they should be doing like she has done previously. This time around, Mary Oliver states specifically what they should not be doing, “You do not have to walk on your knees // For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” She implies that there is no use for such things. Although she acknowledges pain and suffering through, “Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine,” she also brings it back to a sobering reality when she writes, “Meanwhile the world goes on,” and continues to go on about how the world and nature carry on perfectly without trouble. Time does not wait for anyone or anything. Oliver chooses large objects such as the sun, the mountains, and the rivers to show the continuous and reliant nature of time and how it always charges on forward. She uses the end of her poem to bring a sort of reassurance to the reader by suggesting that if a person ever feels distraught and left alone by the fast and constantly moving nature of time that all they need to do is go outside, take a walk, and let the steadiness of nature in.

    Mary Oliver touches upon many things in her poems, however underneath it all there is an overall underlying theme of nature and its deep connections to humans. She contrasts the perfect state of nature against the messiness of humans. She only talks in a positive way about people when there is nature involved. She insists that a person is made better by nature and that when one is lost, nature will help them find not only their way again, but themselves.

Work Cited

""WILD GEESE"by Mary Oliver." "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
"Mary Oliver." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
"On Mary Oliver's Poetry." On Mary Oliver's Poetry. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
"Mary Oliver." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.
Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2016.

Share