Friday, March 22, 2019

On Mary Oliver

Thursday was, apparently World Poetry Day. I had no idea there was such a thing but, thank goodness for social media, I found out just in time. As a result, I shared the Facebook post from Mary Oliver’s Facebook page of one of my favorite poems…

I have not always loved poetry. When I was a kid, I didn’t “get” it. Reading it, the meaning the teachers felt the poem was trying to convey eluded me. Writing it, forget about it. To me, there was a “right” and a “wrong” with poetry, and there was no key that allowed me into the understanding of this format of writing.

To put it plainly, poetry made me feel stupid, like I wasn’t smart enough to study it.

This wasn’t always true. As a kid in lower elementary school, Where the Sidewalk Ends was one of my favorite books. I read it cover to cover, only to close the book and start again. I’d look at Shel Silverstein’s photo on the back cover and think he was one weird dude, but he sure could write poems. I remember reading the poem Smart and thinking that it was the most hilarious thing I’d ever read.

Sometime after third grade, however, I slipped away from poetry and gave up a bit on myself. That all changed when I attended our local community college, Parkland, for a year and a half between transferring from the University of Kentucky to the University of Illinois. There, at Parkland, I had a professor for two classes where we took a deep dive into poetry. We had to analyze it, mark it up with our thinking. The first time we did, I barely wrote anything on it, I was so afraid to be wrong. I wish I remember the name of that eccentric teacher, but he yelled, raising his arms in the air, waving them around, shouting about his passion for poetry, explaining that I needed to let go of my fear.

Somehow, I did.

I fell in love with poetry that semester, and the next. I found new favorite poems, and some that weren’t for me. I talked poetry with other people in our class. I listened to our professor expound on his love of the words we shared.

I didn’t find Mary Oliver that semester. I didn’t find her for years. But one day, I stumbled upon one of her books. I soaked the poems in. I bought another book of her poems. I listened to her read her own poems. I listened to her interviews, podcasts, as I walked. Her quiet voice was a balm to my soul.

I read her poem I Worried
And wondered how she could speak right to my heart.

I read her poem The Summer’s Day

And wondered if I could get the last line tattooed on my body somewhere.

Mary Oliver’s poems spoke to me. Again, and again, and again.

We lost Oliver this year at the age of eighty-three, which seems like an event that should have made the world fall silent for at least a minute or two. I love her quiet way of noticing what many of us do not. I love her appreciation for the small. I love the way she questions.

I will miss her voice. I will miss her poetry. We needed her wisdom, now more than ever.

If you’d like to check out the podcast I mentioned above, you can find it HERE. It’s just shy of an hour, but it’s an hour well spent.