“Wild Geese” was trending on Twitter on Thursday, and poetry lovers — not naturalists or ornithologists — were responsible. Mary Oliver, arguably America’s most beloved best-selling poet, had died earlier in the day, at the age of 83. Her poem “Wild Geese,” from her 1986 collection “Dream Work,” was written in the second person, so the poet seems to be speaking directly to us. It ends this way:
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.
As the news of her death spread across the country and around the world, my social media feeds filled with poems, quotes, links to Oliver’s work and personal stories. What struck me was how many people were moved to tears by her death, people who had never met her. Her work touched millions of people deeply, and not only those who consider themselves poets or poetry lovers. Oliver’s work managed to do something rare: It reached people who didn’t particularly like or “get” contemporary poetry.
She once told NPR that simplicity was important to her. “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear,” she said. “It mustn’t be fancy.” But her work has been criticized by some for its simplicity. Oliver’s poems have been labeled “inspirational” and “accessible,” and while those adjectives may sound positive, they are too often backhanded compliments. I think this criticism comes from a deep misunderstanding of her work, and also from an ugly disdain for poetry that consoles and inspires. Dare I call it snobbery?
Oliver certainly received critical acclaim in her lifetime, too. Her fifth collection of poetry, “American Primitive,” won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1984. Her “New and Selected Poems” (1992) won the National Book Award. Her many honors and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and a number of honorary doctorates.
Yes, Oliver’s poems are eminently quotable. Yes, they inspire. They speak to people who have found much of contemporary poetry befuddling. But the poems also speak for themselves. They are full of wisdom and joy and deep loneliness and gratitude. As someone who loves challenging, genre-bending poetry, I also love the poems of Mary Oliver.
Oliver was born in Ohio, so I like to claim her as a fellow Ohio poet. She lived in Provincetown, Mass., from the 1960s until the death of her partner, Molly Malone Cook, in 2005. She was living in southern Florida at the time of her death. Though the bulk of Oliver’s poems are set on the northwest tip of Cape Cod, I can’t help but see in them so much of our shared Ohio landscape: the deer, the birds, the grass, the water, the trees, the light and the darkness.
“I spent a great deal of time in my younger years just writing and reading, walking around the woods in Ohio, where I grew up,” Oliver said in a 2011 interview in O Magazine. “I very much wished not to be noticed, and to be left alone, and I sort of succeeded.”
I, too, spent much of my Ohio childhood walking among trees or with my nose in a book. Like Oliver, I started writing in my teens and published my first book at 28. And, yes, my work is concerned with place. It is full of deer, birds, fields, rivers, trees, light and darkness.
In a sense, Mary Oliver, and another Ohio poet, James Wright, gave me permission to write about Ohio’s flora and fauna. It was only natural — no pun intended — for me to write about what I saw every day and to build metaphors using my surroundings. It did not surprise me to learn that Whitman, Emerson, Keats and Rumi were some of Oliver’s favorite poets. These are poets of big ideas, poets who used metaphor — often based in the natural world — to build a bridge or open a door.
I learned from Mary Oliver how attention is a kind of love, how shining your mind’s light on a thing — a grasshopper, a bird, a tree — is a way of showing gratitude. I learned that poems do not need to be “difficult” to be intelligent, that poems can be both inspirational and investigative, that poems can be tender without being soft. I learned from her to own my wonder and to stay open to uncertainty.
The most famous, most shared Mary Oliver quote has to be from her poem “The Summer Day,” from “House of Light” (1990), which ends, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
What did Mary Oliver do with her one wild and precious life? She survived a difficult childhood. She loved a woman for 50 years. She wrote poems that will stand the test of time. She touched us.
Maggie Smith’s most recent book of poems is “Good Bones.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, American Poetry Review, the Paris Review and Best American Poetry.