Mary Oliver, poet of quietude and wonder

Articles and essays have been pouring forth from the web in tribute to the poet Mary Oliver since her passing on January 17. America’s most-read contemporary poet by far, Oliver approached the world with open-eyed wonder and delight, writing simply about nature and spirituality. “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement,” she wrote in “When Death Comes.”

Mary Oliver
Photo: Angel Valentin / New York Times

Although Oliver won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, she has been dismissed by many poetry critics as trivial, unsubtle, just an old-fashioned romantic. But that’s precisely what so many of her readers love about her: her uncomplicated free verse that finds beauty and mystery in the ordinariness of the natural world. She always insisted that poetry “mustn’t be fancy”; it should be clear, so as to be understood.

The subjects of most of her poems are the flora and fauna of, most especially, New England, where she lived most of her adult life. Herons, egrets, swans, geese, goldfinches, owls, loons; turtles, snakes, and toads; foxes, porcupines, moles, bears, deer, and dogs (a whole volume on dogs!); ants and grasshoppers, beetles and bees; whelks and whales and sea mice; daisies and goldenrod, roses and poppies and peonies; and so forth.

Oliver, though influenced by the Christianity of her youth, did not ultimately join the church. But, like Whitman and Thoreau before her, she perceived an unseen, transcendental Presence within the natural world. She even sometimes called that Presence “God” and even “Lord,” especially in her later poems. She carried on the long tradition of reading with relish the “book of nature”—nature as a source of divine revelation, a teacher of spiritual lessons. For example, in “Some Herons,” she describes the bird as “a blue preacher,” and in “The Chat,” she writes,

oh, Lord,
what a lesson
you send me
as I stand

listening
to your rattling, swamp-loving chat
singing
of his simple, leafy life—

how I would like to sing to you
all night
in the dark
just like that.

Oliver’s “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale” is one of my favorite Creation poems, and this isn’t the only poem of hers that acknowledges a Creator God. “Spring at Blackwater: I Go Through the Lessons Already Learned” opens tenderly, sweetly, “He gave the fish / her coat of foil, / and her soft eggs.”

Some things I’ve learned from Mary Oliver: Gratitude. Awe. Silence. Prayer. Attention. And these five qualities are all interconnected. Her personal manifesto can be summed up by the fourth section of her poem “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

If you’d like to read Mary Oliver, I highly recommend her final book, Devotions (2017), a compilation of 200+ previously published poems selected by Oliver herself and put out by Penguin. Spanning her career of more than fifty years, the book, though not exhaustive, presently serves as the definitive collection of her work.

Devotions by Mary Oliver

Coincidentally, I was in the middle of reading this volume when I found out about Oliver’s death. Several of her poems confront mortality, the transience of life, and many of her obituary writers have been fond of recalling those oft-quoted final lines of “The Summer Day.” But I am drawn to her “Prayer,” which when I read it instantly made me think of my play-full, wonder-full aunt whose ashes, too, now dance in the ocean:

May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risqué.
May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,
leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,
still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.


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“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

Snowflake
Photo © 2013 Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org

“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

What heart could have thought you?—
Past our devisal
(O filigree petal!)
Fashioned so purely,
Fragilely, surely,
From what Paradisal
Imagineless metal,
Too costly for cost?
Who hammered you, wrought you,
From argentine vapor?—
“God was my shaper.
Passing surmisal,
He hammered, He wrought me,
From curled silver vapor,
To lust of His mind—
Thou could’st not have thought me!
So purely, so palely,
Tinily, surely,
Mightily, frailly,
Insculped and embossed,
With His hammer of wind,
And His graver of frost.”

This poem was originally published in New Poems by Francis Thompson (London, 1897) and is now in the public domain.

“Leavetaking” by Anne Porter

Starry, Starry Night by Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith (American, 1954–), Starry, Starry Night, 2013

“Leavetaking” by Anne Porter

Nearing the start of that mysterious last season
Which brings us to the close of the other four,
I’m somewhat afraid and don’t know how to prepare
So I will praise you.

I will praise you for the glaze on buttercups
And for the pearly scent of wild fresh water
And the great crossbow shapes of swans flying over
With that strong silken threshing sound of wings
Which you gave them when you made them without voices.

And I will praise you for crickets.
On starry autumn nights
When the earth is cooling
Their rusty diminutive music
Repeated over and over
Is the very marrow of peace.

And I praise you for crows calling from treetops
The speech of my first village,
And for the sparrow’s flash of song
Flinging me in an instant
The joy of a child who woke
Each morning to the freedom
Of her mother’s unclouded love
And lived in it like a country.

And I praise you that from vacant lots
From only broken glass and candy wrappers
You raise up the blue chicory flowers.

I thank you for that secret praise
Which burns in every creature,
And I ask you to bring us to life
Out of every sort of death

And teach us mercy.

This poem appears in Living Things: Collected Poems (Hanover, NH: Zoland Books/Steerforth Press, 2006) and is used here by permission of the publisher.

+++

Anne Porter (1911–2011) is one of the last century’s foremost poets of thanks and praise. She wrote all her life, occasionally sharing poems with friends and family, but she focused mainly on raising five kids with her husband, Fairfield Porter, who was a painter.

Motherhood paintings by Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter (American, 1907–1975): Anne Reading to Laurence, 1947, oil on Masonite, 30 × 24 in., Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Katie and Anne, 1949, oil on board, 30 × 24 in., Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Anne, Lizzie and Katie, 1958, oil on canvas, 78 × 60 in., Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska.

She wrote “Leavetaking” upon entering old age, and after her husband had died. As her body grew weaker and more burdensome and death drew nearer, she still found much to praise God for—for the regal shape of swans’ wings overhead, for the “rusty diminutive music” of crickets on starry nights, for the vast love between mother and child, for the hope of resurrection preached in abandoned lots where flowers rise out of debris.

Some years later, Porter’s friend David Shapiro, a literary critic and fellow poet, asked if for his birthday, she could compile some of her poems for him. She gathered up what she could find in the house, and without her foreknowledge, he submitted it to a publisher. The resulting collection, An Altogether Different Language (1994), was published when she was eighty-three and was named a finalist for the National Book Award.

In the foreword to that first book of hers, Shapiro wrote,

If we have problems, because so much of the language of belief has grown connotatively encrusted, then we wait for the poets who believe enough and can freshen this dialect.

Anne Porter is one of the rare poets who believes enough, who lives in days and holidays, and who has stunningly found a language to transmit her Franciscan joy in created things.

Also from the foreword:

  • “Her faith has enlarged her, not the reverse, and her poetry has the grandeur of seeing things ‘as if for the first time.’”
  • “Her greatest emotional perspective is that of praise.”
  • She is “an American religious poet of stature who reminds us that the idea of the holy is still possible for us.”
  • “For Anne Porter, the holy is found in a commitment to Christ the Mediator and his triumph in suffering for a suffering world. However, she gives a constant, almost pantheistic pressure to the theme that the Kingdom of God is within and without, so that her radiant if concise imagism is all in the service of God.”

Whereas many modern and contemporary poets write about the hiddenness of God, the deus absconditus, Porter wrote unabashedly about the myriad ways in which God reveals himself in the world. Her second and last book, Living Things: Collected Poems (2006), brings together thirty-nine new poems with those published in the previous volume.

In 2010, theologian and biblical scholar Ellen F. Davis wrote a beautiful article for the Christian Century titled “Our proper place: The poetry of care and loss,” in which she discusses Porter’s poetry alongside that of Mary Oliver. Like Oliver, she says, Porter is a “direct descendant of the psalmists”; she “clarif[ies] what is at stake in the Psalter: nothing less than the possibility of praising God truly.”

Roundup: Liturgical video installation; Mynheer profile; SYTYCD; natural-world mystic poetry; lament song

“Mark Dean Projects Stations of the Cross Videos on Henry Moore Altar,” exhibition review and artist interview by Jonathan Evens: On April 15–16 St. Stephen Walbrook in London hosted an all-night Easter Eve vigil that featured a fourteen-video installation by artist-priest Mark Dean. Inspired by the Stations of the Cross, these videos were projected, in sequence and interspersed with readings and periods of silence, onto the church’s round stone altar by the famous modern artist Henry Moore (Dean wanted his work to be presented as an offering). The vigil culminated with a dance performance by Lizzi Kew Ross & Co and a dawn Eucharist. Evens writes,

Mark Dean’s videos are not literal depictions of the Stations of the Cross, the journey Jesus walked on the day of his crucifixion. Instead, Dean appropriated a few frames of iconic film footage together with extracts of popular music and then slowed down, reversed, looped or otherwise altered these so that the images he selected were amplified through their repetition. As an example, in the first Stations of the Cross video, a clip of Julie Andrews as the novice Maria from the opening scenes of The Sound of Music was layered over an extract, from the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho, of a car arriving at Bates Motel where Marion Crane would be murdered by Norman Bates. The blue of the sky and the innocence suggested by Maria’s religious vocation was in contrast with the footage from Psycho, which was indicative of the violent death to which Jesus was condemned. [Read more of the review, plus an interview with the artist, here.]

Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “I. The Royal Road,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “VIII. Daughters of Jerusalem,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens
Stations of the Cross by Mark Dean
Mark Dean, “IX. In Freundschaft,” from Stations of the Cross cycle. Video projected on Henry Moore altar at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, April 15–16, 2017. Photo: Jonathan Evens

Sounds like an exemplary integration of art and liturgy! You can read the catalog essay and watch the videos on Dean’s website, tailbiter.com. See also the interview with curator Lucy Newman Cleeve published in Elephant magazine.

“Featured Artist: Nicholas Mynheer” by Victoria Emily Jones: This month I wrote a profile on British artist Nicholas Mynheer for Transpositions, the official blog of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. (There’s a glitch with their publishing tool that is preventing all the artworks from displaying, but all the ones I discuss in the article can be found at www.mynheer-art.co.uk.) A painter, sculptor, and glass designer, Nick works almost exclusively on religious subjects, in a style that blends influences from medieval, primitive, and expressionist art. I met him in 2013 and got to see his studio and his work in situ in various Oxford churches. His love of God and place was obvious from my spending just one afternoon with him. Other articles I’ve written are on Nick’s Wilcote Altarpiece, Islip Screen, and 1991 Crucifixion painting (which I own).

Harvest by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Harvest, 2010. Oil on canvas, 70 × 70 cm.
Michaelmas Term Window by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Michaelmas Term Window, 2012. Fused glass. Abingdon School Chapel, Oxfordshire, England.
Corpus of Christ by Nicholas Mynheer
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), Corpus of Christ, 2010. English limestone, 85 cm tall.

Season 14 of So You Think You Can Dance premiered last Monday (the only TV show I never miss!). Watching dancers draws me into a deeper awe of God, as I see all the creative potentialities of the human body he designed. Here are my two favorite auditions from episode 1. The first is husband-wife duo Kristina Androsenko and Vasily Anokhin performing ballroom. The second is a modern dance number performed by Russian twins Anastasiia and Viktoriia; they gave no comment on the dance’s motivation or meaning, but it’s clear that it represents trauma of some kind.

“Why we need Mary Oliver’s poems” by Debra Dean Murphy: “Oliver is a mystic of the natural world, not a theologian of the church. . . . Her theological orientation is not that of orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, Christians have much to gain from reading Oliver . . .” Her poems are “occasions for transfiguring the imagination and a summons to wonder and delight”; they remind us “of what it means to attend to what is before us in any given moment,” teach us to adopt “a posture of receptivity that Christians sometimes speak of as part of our vocation—the calling to live more fully into our humanity as persons bearing the imago dei, to mirror the divine dance of mutual presence, mutual receptivity, mutual love.” Some of my favorite Oliver poems are “Praying,” “I Wake Close to Morning,” “Messenger,” “The Summer Day,” and “How the Grass and the Flowers Came to Exist, a God-Tale.”

NEW SONG: “Weep with Me” by Rend Collective: Written last month in response to the Manchester Arena bombing, “Weep with Me” is a contemporary lament psalm in which the speaker asks God to do what the title says: weep with him. To feel his pain and respond. It’s introduced and performed acoustically by band member Chris Llewellyn in the video below.

On the video’s YouTube page, Rend Collective writes,

Can worship and suffering co-exist? Can pain and praise inhabit the same space? Can we sing that God is good when life is not? When there are more questions than answers? The Bible says a resounding yes: these songs are called laments and they make up a massive portion of the Psalms.

We felt it was fitting to let you hear this lament we’ve written today as we prepare to play tonight in Manchester. We can’t make the pain go away. We refuse to provide cheap, shallow answers. But hopefully this song can give us some vocabulary to bring our raw, open wounds before the wounded healer, who weeps with us in our distress. We pray that we can begin to raise a costly, honest and broken hallelujah. That is what it means to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

“i thank You God for most this amazing” by E. E. Cummings

Chocorua Landscape by E. E. Cummings
E. E. Cummings (American, 1894–1962), Chocorua Landscape. Watercolor, 12 × 18 in.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

This poem was originally published in Xaipe1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), reissued in 2004 by Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher. Copyright expires 2045.


Edward Estlin Cummings (1894–1962), known as E. E. Cummings,2 is one of America’s most famous twentieth-century poets. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was raised, a pastor’s son, in the Unitarian faith, which emphasizes the oneness of God. As an adult he wed this spiritual framework to Emersonian transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that celebrates humanity and nature. Elements from these two complementary traditions can be detected in his praise poem “i thank You God for most this amazing,” in which the natural world triggers an awakening to Truth. And for Cummings, Truth is a person, a “You” with a capital Y.

Humanities students are always introduced to Cummings as a poet, but actually, painting is the endeavor he invested most of his time in.3 One of his favorite subjects to paint was the landscape surrounding his summer home at Joy Farm in Silver Lake, New Hampshire (see image above). The elation he felt in this environment of wooded hills, fields, and lake he worked into several of his poems. I wonder if the phrases “leaping greenly spirits of trees” and “blue true dream of sky” were inspired by a view from his farmstead one August day.

Cummings is notorious for his idiosyncratic poetic style, which is marked especially by unconventional syntax—that is, a nonlogical ordering of words. This device is at play in the awkward first line of our present poem, which dislocates “most”: instead of “i thank You God for this most amazing / day” (this day is so amazing) or even “i thank You God most for this amazing / day” (this day is what I’m most thankful for), we have “i thank You God for most this amazing / day.” By inverting the word order, Cummings draws attention to the word “most,” traditionally an adverb but in this position an indeterminate part of speech.  Continue reading ““i thank You God for most this amazing” by E. E. Cummings”