Why Mary Oliver Was the Secular Clergy Our Times Need

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Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who died on Thursday, will surely be remembered for her lifework’s most prominent aspects: its thrumming passion for nature and animals; its plain-spoken accessibility. Yet even more significant for our times is Oliver’s astounding focus and sense of awe. In keeping with America’s tradition of prophetic writers, Oliver fulfilled a role of secular clergy. 

We acutely need that leadership today, in our era of attention-shredding distractions, mind-dulling cheap overstimulation, and an emphasis on achieving that too often crowds out the very experience of living. We are losing Oliver when we need her most. We can, and must, keep her teachings alive within us.

Oliver’s Focus and Awe

Following in the footsteps of earlier American poets like Walt Whitman, Oliver had an extraordinary capacity to focus mindfully on what is present. Her poetry was not abstract, nor did it flit from thing to thing: she knew how to look and to linger. 

Consider Oliver’s poem, “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957,” in which she falls asleep amid the blueberries and awakens to the brush of a deer. The poem brings one “moment” to life: the deer is “listening / to the wind as she leaned down / to lip up the sweetness.” Oliver thus shows how the ability to focus immerses one fully in living: “the moment … / was so wide and so deep / it has lasted to this day; /… for thirty years.”

Oliver’s work, too, spotlights a Whitman-esque awe. “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement,” she writes in her poem, “When Death Comes.” “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” She thereby reminds us that “amazement” — an experience in “this world” more than merely passing through it (a “visit”) — is possible. And she shows us how deep, rooted, joyful, and utterly of substance that experience is: like a “marri[age],” like a home (the opposite of a “visit”). 

Oliver’s most beloved poem is “The Summer Day,” which ends with the lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Hillary Clinton tweeted these lines following Oliver’s passing. Vanity Fair published an article entitled, “How Mary Oliver’s ‘The Summer Day’ Became an American Sensation.” 

The way Oliver arrives at these concluding lines and their evocation of life’s great possibility is through focus and awe. She begins the poem by focusing in, as a movie director does with a close-up: “Who made the world? … / 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 … ”

This focusing leads to awe. First, the reader feels wonder at these vivid specifics of life. Then, Oliver beckons wonderment to center stage: “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 … ” 

Oliver thus shows us how “pay[ing] attention” leads to discovering the feeling of being “blessed.” And the image of “fall[ing] down” and “kneel[ing] down” dually offers a how-to guide to encountering the world, and shows the “prayer”-like reaction one might have to what one encounters.

Our Times and Oliver’s Legacy

Today, we live amid a plethora of distractions, from smartphone notifications to ads, that persistently obstruct us from immersing in any experience. We live amid stimulation without wonder, stimulation that like fast-food fries fills without nourishing, as in “reality” TV, Instagram meal photos and self-portraits, and endless movie-franchise installments. 

And we live amid an approach to achievement that, from résumés and admissions processes to Facebook’s universalizing of PR, too often commodifies genuine accomplishment; pressures us to be always racking it up; and shunts aside focused presence in a moment, and marveling at what it truly contains. 

Mary Oliver’s poetry inoculates us against these cultural maladies. It ushers us into her focus and awe, and shows us how to live more in the way she did.

Focused mindfulness and awe have a spiritual dimension. In that sense, again in the model of Whitman and others, Oliver served as poet-clergy. 

Her work shares DNA with that of great theologians, such as mid-20th century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who used the term, “radical amazement,” and wrote, “Celebration is an active state … To be entertained is a passive state,” and the contemporaneous Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, who wrote, “Praying is living.”

Similarly, in Oliver’s summons to live fully, one hears Yale’s Vietnam War-era chaplain, the Protestant minister Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., who wrote, “[A] career helps you win the rat race; a calling reminds you that even if you win a rat race, you’re still a rat!” 

Since the time of Heschel, Nouwen, and Coffin, we have had fewer leaders who sound these calls. 

Oliver was not a public lecturer or officeholder and avoided interviews. Yet through her work, she was indeed a leader. If we continue to read it, and if we listen to its call, Oliver will continue to be the leader we need.

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