(Published on the web site of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment,) In Memoriam: Mary Oliver, 1935–2019
By Mark C. Long, Keene State College
The poet Mary Oliver passed away on January 17, 2019. An honorary member of our association, Oliver published over thirty books of poetry and prose that brought the concerns of ASLE to more readers than any other poet of her generation.
Oliver published her first book, No Voyage and Other Poems, in 1963. Over the next fifty years, Oliver offered us new ways to think about the gift of human life and the fragile beauty of the more-than-human world. As the poems kept coming, Oliver rekindled the uses of poetry in our culture—in lyrics, sequences, a book-length poem, prose poems, and essays. And her audience kept expanding, too, her book sales, running into the millions, reminding us of the singular power of her distinctive voice.
Oliver’s life and work are at once inspiration and provocation—most acutely to those of us preoccupied with environmental concern, equity, and justice. How does our thinking and writing, our art and our activism, reach the audiences who most need us? How do we live convincing lives for those who need to be inspired? “Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do,” Oliver reminded us. “Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.”
Although Oliver once stood in that water, and found her way upstream, her generous provocations are for us—whether we find ourselves in a stream or on a city sidewalk. Her belief that we can learn to love the world came from Walt Whitman, she told us, for his “message was clear from the first and never changed: that a better, richer life is available to us, and with all his force he advocated it both for the good of each individual soul and for the good of the universe.”
This potential for goodness in a world that appears otherwise is the heartbeat of Oliver’s advocacy. It is no wonder, then, that Oliver’s poems come into our lives across experiences, generations, and occasions—as children, adolescents, young adults, middle-age and older adults, in schools and libraries, family and community gatherings, and places of worship.
She prodded us to be in the world—with awareness, imagination, compassion, and agency. She excited our consciences and awakened our emotions. And she offered those of us more familiar with thinking about poems something less familiar: an invitation to think with poems that wrestle with our commonplaces about the world, honestly and openly, to guide us into the material and spiritual condition of our lives.
“Here is a story / to break your heart. / Are you willing? With these lines Oliver begins the poem “Lead,” a story of loons dying in the harbor “of nothing we could see,” a poem that ends with the story she has been sharing with us for over fifty years:
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
An informal gathering to honor the literary and cultural contributions of the poet Mary Oliver will be held from 12:15-1:15 pm on June 28, 2019 during the 2019 ASLE Conference. The reading will take place in the T. Elliot Weier Redwood Grove located in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden. Participants are invited to read one of Oliver’s poems, or a selection from her prose. Brief comments on Oliver’s work are also welcome. If you plan to attend this event, please RSVP Mark C. Long at firstname.lastname@example.org.