Mary Oliver calls herself a “praise poet.” She proves it with a Niagara of observations in praise of life and the beings of the Earth and her response to it all. She writes about foxes and such things in poems that will move people to “shiver with praise” (257)—that is how she sees her vocation as a poet.
“Look, I want to love this world
as though it’s the last chance I’m ever going to get
to be alive
and know it….” (309f)
Oliver has a deep sense of the Original Blessing that life is. In a poem called “Hum” she observes the worker bee carefully and tells us that they live about three weeks.
“Is that long? Long enough, I suppose to understand
that life is a blessing.”
She tells us this of her philosophy:
“I think there isn’t anything in this world I don’t
admire. If there is, I don’t know what it is. I
haven’t met it yet. Nor expect to.”
And she celebrates
“the fragrance, and the honey, and of course
the sun, the purely pure sun, shining, all the while, over
all of us.” (145)
She speaks to both beauty (the Via Positiva) and our responsibility to care for it (the Via Transformativa).
“A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world
and the responsibilities of your life.” (232)
At this dark time of history, how important is it that “praise poets” rise to the surface and be heard? Is that itself an act of interference, i.e. a prophetic act, namely to be a herald of praise?
Though a “praise poet” she is not at all unfamiliar with the pain of life, the Via Negativa.
In a poem called “Lead” she tells of a loon she found dead on the shore with many other dead loons.
“I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.” (146f)
Practicing the Via Transformativa, she speaks truth to power and stands up against injustice. Her poem “Of the Empire” laments our culture this way.
“We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.” (112)
Oliver tells us she wants one day to hear herself cry out:
“The house of money is falling!
The house of money is falling! The weeds are
Rising! The weeds are rising!” (83)
All the citations of Mary Oliver’s poems here are from Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (NY: Putnam, 2017), a volume she put together before she died in January, 2019.
Banner Image: “Gazing Out Over Rice Paddies.’ Photo by Artem Kovalev on Unsplash
Queries for Contemplation
Do you want to love the world “as if it is the last chance you will ever get”? What is holding you back?
Rabbi Heschel says “praise precedes faith.” Is Mary Oliver out front of faith and all the arguments and concepts of faith traditions that divide and saying, “let us return to creation/nature as our common ground for celebrating our shared existence and fight human folly. And here is how to do it.”? Do you want to follow her, is she calling you?
Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.
Fox’s spirituality weds the healing and liberation found in North American Creation Spirituality and in South American Liberation Theology. Creation Spirituality challenges readers of every religious and political persuasion to unite in a new vision through which we learn to honor the earth and the people who inhabit it as the gift of a good and just Creator.