Beloved American poet Mary Oliver has died, aged 83. She had been being treated for lymphoma, which was diagnosed in 2015.
In her poem ‘When Death Comes,’ Oliver wrote of this inevitability: “When it’s over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement/I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
Both prolific and esteemed, her passing spurred an outpouring of appreciation on social media, with people posting their favorite poems and passages, including the widely popular ‘Summer Day’, that ends with an irresistible challenge to the reader, to lead a purposeful life of one’s own design.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Oliver took great solace in, and inspiration from, the natural world, getting many of the ideas for her poems while taking long walks. “I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world,” she has said.
Attention, she felt sure, was the origin of devotion — and advised that people expose children to the wonders of nature and all its details as soon and often as possible, for the good of humankind.
Her own childhood, in rural Ohio, was not a happy one. She has told of being sexually abused and also of being neglected by her parents. Nature and poetry were her two sources of refuge then, and for a lifetime. Walking outdoors “saved her life,” she told On Being’s Krista Tippett in a rare radio interview in 2015, also recalling that she began to write “rotten” poetry around the age of 10 or 12. Nothing if not persistent, she eventually won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Oliver lived for many years in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with the great love of her life, the photographer Molly Malone Cook. In a stunning essay about Cook, written after her death in 2005 at the age of 80, Oliver wrote: “She was style, and she was an old loneliness that nothing could quite wipe away; she was vastly knowledgeable about people, about books, about the mind’s emotions and the heart’s. She lived sometimes in a black box of memories and unanswerable questions, and then would come out and frolic — be feisty, and bold.”
They had been together by then more than four decades, in a “love so tight,” as Oliver put it. Oliver credited Cook with urging her “to enter more fully into the human world also, and to embrace it.”
In ‘The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac (Part 3),’ Oliver — who felt she had never wasted a year — wrote about making the most of life:
I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.