2019-03-15 / Society

“Attention is the Beginning of Devotion” —Mary Oliver

By Susan Hendricks


Susan Hendricks Susan Hendricks I fell in love with the poetry of Mary Oliver over 20 years ago through her carefully chosen words, thought-provoking questions, and creative imagery brimming with possibility. When I discovered the power in her words with its potential to transform my life and long-held opinions, I joined the growing number of Oliver’s many devoted fans.

Poetry began early and by age ten Oliver was writing poems to help assuage her painful childhood. During high school, she skipped classes to explore the forest and absorb Walt Whitman’s words and left home for good the day after graduating. Although she never completed college, she learned all she needed to bring her gifts into the world.

“I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel… I was saved by poetry and by the beauty of the world.”

Her first collection, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963 when she was 28 years old. Twenty-one years later in 1984, when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her fourth full-length book, American Primitive, very few people knew her. But after 1992 when New and Selected Poems won the National Book Award, her following grew and her books become best sellers.

A reflection in Time magazine recently summed up her life and work as she “found perspective in the march of seasons. She envied the secret lives of animals. She reminded her readers that life is a blessing, that mischief can be healing, that uncertainty isn’t a reason to disbelieve… and left us with helpful instructions.”

On Krista Tippett’s podcast On- Being in 2015, Tippett and Oliver agreed that, “The Summer Day,” is the most widely beloved of all her poetry. In that poem she mused:

“… 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, how to stroll through the fields.… And challenged her readers:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do With your one wild and precious life?” Oliver acknowledged a spiritual component in much of her work that deepened as she aged.

“I believe poetry is very sacred. It’s a community ritual. You write it for anybody and everybody. It’s always a gift. People are more apt to remember a poem and therefore feel they own it and can speak it to themselves as you might a prayer. You have it when you need it. The world is the theater of the spiritual.”

In another of her best-known poems, “When Death Comes” in New and Selected Poems: Volume One (1992), she expressed her wish for how her life would end.

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

I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms…” Her final line challenged us all to live fully and with purpose—“ I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” Any one of Mary Oliver’s poems may offer you a chance to reflect on your own life if you pay attention and allow your thoughts to surface naturally.

Choose one of her lines to begin your own personal writing. A single line or phrase that stands out or has struck you deeply may begin your own poem or become its title. You’ll find possibilities for your own new answers by responding to any of the many questions Oliver poses. Write without having a particular goal in mind as you record your emerging thoughts.

Mary Oliver lived a full and extraordinarily productive life. She died at the age of 83, January 17, 2019. Thankfully, her work will live on.

Susan Hendricks leads personal writing groups and workshops approved by the SC Social Work Examiners Board for CEU credits for mental health counselors, and is an instructor for the Therapeutic Writing Institute online. Read all of her Columbia Star columns at www.susanhendricks.com/columbia-star-news.

Return to top