I watched as a wave of sadness passed through my online sphere last week with the news of Mary Oliver's death, and I felt that sadness, too. Sadness that the poems of hers we have are now the only poems of hers we will have. Sadness that such a luminous, attentive, real soul has left this life.
In a list of the poets whose work most moves me, Mary Oliver ranks high. (So do Jane Kenyon and Naomi Shihab Nye, who have been among my literary lights for decades.) They have in common a certain plainness of speech, and I know that in the eyes of some in the poetry world that makes their work "lesser." But not for me.
As a reader, I yearn for poems that speak clearly, poems that open up some facet of the world whether external or interior (and the best poems do both at once.) And as a rabbi, I crave poems that can serve as prayer, or accompany prayer, or open up prayer, for those whom I serve. Mary Oliver's poems did all of these.
"I don't know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention..." I think part of what makes her poems so extraordinary is the way they manage to speak not only from her heart but from ours. And they wake me up. They remind me to notice, to pay attention, to feel, to live. They are a meditation bell in poetry form.
"Every morning / the world / is created..." It could be our daily liturgy. Indeed, I have used her "Morning Poem" as liturgy -- from time to time when I do a poetry service where each of the morning prayers is paired with an English-language poem, and also sometimes just on its own, reading the poem as prayer.
"Oh do you have time / to linger / for just a little while..." I can't read those words not without hearing them sung in haftarah trope. (Click through to hear them that way.) I sing them each year on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, when the world is poised on the brink of autumn, when we are poised on the cusp of a new year, and they resonate like a struck bell.
But today the poem of hers that is most speaking to me is "The Journey." "One day you finally knew / what you had to do..." The journey is difficult. There are voices that demand all the wrong things. But with the hard work of striving for integrity and authenticity the path becomes clear, and there is a kind of luminous hope, and the soul is not alone.
May her memory be a blessing, and may her poems continue to shine.