Poetry Mustn’t Be Fancy: Mary Oliver

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it. 

— Mary Oliver

 

The beloved American poet, Mary Oliver, died Thursday of lymphoma at her home in Hobe Sound, Florida. She was 83. From NPR:

Oliver got a lot of her ideas for poems during long walks — a habit she developed as a kid growing up in rural Ohio. It was not a happy childhood: She said she was sexually abused and suffered from parental neglect. But as she told NPR in 2012, she found refuge in two great passions that lasted her entire life.

She said, “The two things I loved from a very early age were the natural world and dead poets, [who] were my pals when I was a kid.”

Oliver published her first collection, No Voyage and Other Poems, in her late 20s. She went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. But writer Ruth Franklin believes such recognition probably wasn’t that important to Oliver. “I always had a sense of her as somebody who was just interested in following her own path, both spiritually and poetically,” she says.

In a New Yorker article about Oliver’s 2017 book, Devotions, Franklin wrote that Oliver wasn’t always appreciated by critics, but she was still one of the country’s most popular poets. And there’s a reason for that.

“Mary Oliver isn’t a difficult poet,” Franklin says. “Her work is incredibly accessible, and I think that’s what makes her so beloved by so many people. It doesn’t feel like you have to take a seminar in order to understand Mary Oliver’s poetry. She’s speaking directly to you as a human being.”

Oliver told NPR that simplicity was important to her. “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear,” she said. “It mustn’t be fancy. I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now, they sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.”

The full piece is here. Mary Oliver reads “Praying” below.

 

News Reporter
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.

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