“Attention is the Beginning of Devotion” – Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

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 for her began early and by age ten she was writing poems to 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 share her gifts with 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 4th 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 in that 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.” (1-17-2019)

When Krista Tippett interviewed Oliver in 2015 on her podcast “On-Being,” both agreed that her poem, “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.…

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

And challenged her readers with:

“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 became deeper 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.”

Oliver wrote another one of her best-known poems “When Death Comes” in “New and Selected Poems: Volume One” (1992) that included her wish:

“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…”

And challenged all of us to live fully and with purpose with her final line.

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

Perhaps any 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.

From any of her poems or prose, choose one of her lines to begin personal writing.  Then without having a particular goal in mind, continue to record your thoughts as they emerge.  Choose any of the many questions Oliver poses and write to discover your answers.

Or choose a single line or phrase from any of her poems that stands out or has struck you deeply and begin your own poem with it or make it the title for your new poem.

Following each of the suggestions above, reread what you’ve written, circling important points and making notes to highlight new thoughts and musings.

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

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.

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