America’s Unofficial Poet Laureate: Mary Oliver

Judging by her phenomenal sales, Mary Oliver surely rates as America’s unofficial poet laureate, and yet the anomaly that she’s never held the office since its inception in 1937.

I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of her, despite teaching modern poetry for some thirty-five years, probably because the Modernists held sway when I was in graduate school and during much of my tenure.

Likewise, she’s excluded from The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, a principal text in modern poetry courses, despite having won both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.

In her favor, however, is a sympathetic overview of her work by the Poetry Foundation, which I recommend as a starting place for those new to her poetry.

I came to her poetry late and in the oddest way through an online course in meditation called “Demystifying Mindfulness, ” where one of her poems, Mindful,” was included for its affinity with mindfulness practice, often associated with Buddhism:

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

I’ve now read a lot of her poetry, with many more to go–she’s written 26 books of verse–with every poem a kingdom of delight.

I think she’s given poetry back to us with her craft wielded in directness and simplicity, yet latent in nuance. And then there’s that redolent pathos, or intensity, of a voice resolute with conviction hammered out on the anvil of experience, not always kind.

Over a lifetime, I’ve preferred a poetry complicit in ambiguity, or tension; poetry resounding in the inequities of existence and the paradoxical.

Oliver wins me over, nonetheless, because like the Romantics before her, her verse glistens with acute awareness of life’s brevity and the imperative of living each day as Wordsworth might say in “wise passivity,” mindful of the sensory aspects within ourselves that connect us with all sentient beings in the bubble of transience.

Best of all, I’ve found that in those nights that I cannot sleep, in turning to her poetry I find solace and with it, sleep.

I’m not surprised there are Buddhist affinities in poems such as “Mindful.”
Buddhism isn’t really about reincarnation; its about being alive to the nowness of the moment, whether good or bad, in a cosmos of impermanence where even the stars ultimately suffer mortality.

Buddhism, however, can’t claim her, for her poetry embraces a spirituality that transcends religion with its orthodoxies, reverencing the sanctity of all things, like her great master, Walt Whitman, in its celebration of the holiness of the profane.

Of her many poems, I think “When Death Comes,” surely a thematic key to her poetry, is my favorite. Accordingly, I find myself hungry to lock its wisdom into the privilege of each morning’s waking:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

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.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


Peter Matthiessen: Homegoing


We lost a great writer, Peter Matthiessen, this past weekend. A co-founder of the renowned Paris Review and author of thirty-three books, both fiction and non-fiction, his supreme subject was Nature and, sadly, Man’s pervasive impact upon it:

Species appear, and left behind by a changing earth, they disappear forever, and there is a certain solace in the inexorable. But until man, the highest predator, evolved, the process of extinction was a slow one. No species but man, so far as is known, unaided by circumstance or climactic change, has ever extinguished another. (Wilderness in America [1959]).

Along with other environmentalists, I mourn his loss since his death silences a powerful voice of advocacy for what remains.

I think of the great writers of Nature who have borne sensitive witness to the fragile cocoon of Nature that includes ourselves that I have read across the years, works both of poetry and prose that have refined my sensitivity, shaped my priorities, and taught me awareness of the transience of all living things. All of them have been my teachers.

In poetry, I think of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Hopkins, Dickinson, Frost, Jeffers, for example; as for prose–Thoreau, followed by Muir, Carson, Wilson, Dillard, McKibben and, of course, the most prodigious–Matthiessen.

Of all the books Matthiessen wrote, two stand out to me in particular as robust reads: Shadow Country, a novel featuring a desperado gunned down by his own neighbors in the lawless Everglades wilderness of the nineteenth century; the other, Snow Leopard, a non-fictional account of Matthiessen’s search for the elusive snow leopard in the Himalayas. More than a travel adventure, it depicts the author’s spiritual journey. As stimulating as it is beautiful, lucid in its prose and stunning in its imagery, it may just be one of the finest books to treat both Nature and the Soul ever written and deserves many re-readings.

Both Shadow Country and Snow Leopard won National Book Awards, our country’s most prestigious literary prize. (Matthiessen is the only writer to receive multiple National Book Awards.)

Matthiessen was not your ordinary person. A former CIA spy, son of a well-to-do family, initially conservative in his politics, he ultimately moved to the Left, championing American Indians, Cesar Chavez and exploited migrants, opposed the Vietnam War (bravely refusing to pay taxes) and, of course, became a committed environmentalist.

A deeply spiritual man, he embraced Buddhism following the death of his second wife in 1972, ultimately becoming a Buddhist priest. Snow Leopard reflects a Zen ambience throughout and its acceptance of the Now as the only true consolation we have in a transitory cosmos.

Though he fought ardently for conserving nature, he was troubled by the exponential excesses wrought by anthropocentric interests. As he would lament, “I can hardly point to a victory that we ever won as conservationists that hasn’t been overturned.”

Not all was lost, however:

 …we won some, too — there were long-lasting victories. And if nothing else, we stalled — stalled them off, the developers and exploiters.

All of us Greens will miss him, and yet there remains the fervent advocacy of his many books championing justice; respect for other species and their habitat; the simple life lived mindfully, free from material desire; the valuing of each other.

There couldn’t have been a finer man.






My passion for reading

I’m always on the look out for a good read, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s fact or fiction.  Biographies, memoirs, diaries, you name it.  But science fiction, romance, adventure, I like these, too.  And then there are the how-to books from zen to gardening, take your pick.

I probably read from 15 to 20 books yearly, not any record-setting pace, but I think a fair number.  I’ve many interests like gardening and studying Spanish, but I try never to crowd out a daily dose of a good book, investing at least an hour every day.

There are a lot of talented writers and engaging topics out there, so sometimes I find it hard to choose, since obviously you can’t read everything.  Book lists come in handy, but I tend to avoid the more popular ones like those in the New York Times or Amazon.  Sometimes I check-in with Publisher’s Weekly.  I’ll also look at the National Book Awards and Booker Prize listings online.  Occasionally, I’ll pick up a choice item on the recommendation of Fareed Zakaria, who always closes his GPS show with a super read.  And then there’s The New York Review of Books, which has never steered me wrong.

In a post I wrote just a few days ago, I mentioned I’d taken-up Mindfulness Meditation. As one of its weekly exercises, they ask you to break out of your habit modes by altering a specific routine; for example, change where you sit at the table at home.  The idea is to get you in-touch with your senses and stimulate awareness that can help you catch destructive thought patterns.  I’ve extended this habit-breaking strategy to my reading, exploring new vistas.  (By the way, novelty has a way of recharging brain cells, warding off dementia.)

It isn’t often I read a book originally written in a language other than English, the exceptions being classics such as The Divine ComedyLes Miserables, Anna Karenina and the like.  I know this is very parochial, since there are many exceptional reads not written by Anglos.  And so I opted for a different pathway a few days ago, downloading Natsume Sodeki’s The Gate (New York Review Books Classics).  Turns out, I made a wise choice.  I had never heard of Sodeki, nor ever read a Japanese novel.  Sodeki happens to be Japan’s most revered modern novelist, something I didn’t know, but now understand.  Discovering a game-changer, I want to read more works by Sodeki and others outside the groove.

I’m optimistic about the future of reading, despite the closing of many bookstores, the precarious profit margins for publishers, and the plethora of community budget woes putting the  squeeze on one of America’s unique treasures: the public library.  Last year more titles were published than ever, though not necessarily in traditional book format, since the times are a changing.  Like most everything else, books evolve with adaptation a corollary for survival.  Electronic books are here to stay and publishers who don’t render increased access to this new format are unlikely to survive.

A uniquely human endeavor, reading will endure.  A few years ago, it was widely forecast that the DVD would close movie theaters and end the big screen tradition.  Well, that hadn’t happened when last I looked and, similarly, TV never replaced the radio, witness the popularity of 24/7 radio talk shows or stations with dedicated music genres and their many listeners

But why this passion in me for reading? I read to be entertained, informed, inspired and, yes, sometimes to be chastised into seeing a new way of thinking.  But mostly, at least with regard to literary texts, I read to engage my feelings through their imaging in metaphor and articulation, often eloquently, into the truths of human experience.  It’s then I know I’m not alone, but linked with others in that existential quest for meaning and affirmation.  As such, reading grows my empathy and compels my compassion. What more could I ask?

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