Mary Oliver and the Poems We Need

As I write this, a young man ( a boy, really) has been caught on video, harassing an elder at a March for Life rally. The young man is wearing a MAGA hat. The young man is white; the old man is a Native elder. People on social media have named both, stood up for both, and weighed in with their own expressions of violence, shaming and hatred, from yes, all sides of this deeply broken agreement about what we owe each other as human beings.

There are many political and cultural signifiers in what I just wrote, which will trigger people in different ways, and yet what strikes me most is the way we rush to outrage, running right past sorrow: our tendency to instantly react can obscure a missed opportunity for real connection, for truly being reminded of the way we keep perpetuating the worst of human attributes. We race past intimacy and the holy practice of deep presence. What is happening in that young man’s heart? What is responding in that elder man’s soul? In ours? How can they find a way to each other, and us to them?

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
(From The Journey, by Mary Oliver; Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press 1986)

Mary Oliver’s poetry shows us how to pay attention, how to enter into a more deliberate state of attentiveness regarding what is unfolding in nature’s time. Her work is loved by so many because of this quality of intimate stillness simultaneously infused with life’s passionate urgency; her poems explore the path toward a balance of both, a fusion which delights and heals and transcends. Some have argued that poetry such as hers is too divorced from the daily realities we struggle with as a culture and a body politic, but I believe that there is an opportunity in every encounter with people, animals, and nature to deeply connect. Trying to articulate what that desire for connection, and the experience of it when it happens, feels like, looks like, is an important poetic pursuit. Her poems teach us how to bear witness to what really matters: the connection we are all trying to get back to, in one way or another. May the young man ( and all of us) who couldn’t see what was right in from of him, find his way.

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.”