The Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Mary Oliver read poems spanning her roughly forty-year career to a packed Campbell Hall on Saturday night.
The event drew a noticeably older crowd which was dotted with students, but judging from the palpable silence in which we reverently listened, as well as the regular murmurs of approval at each and every poem’s conclusion, I believe most in attendance that evening left with the same sense of satisfaction and quiet awe.
Santa Barbara’s poet laureate and Westmont College professor Paul Willis introduced Oliver, drawing connections between her and another Pulitzer Prize winning poet, the late Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose farm Oliver occupied on and off for seven years from the age of seventeen.
He also spoke of her in relation to the romantic poets, including William Wordsworth, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.
Though Oliver might have missed the height of romanticism, her work touches on many of the same themes: individualism, intuition, imagination and an overwhelming emotional response to nature.
Most of the poems she shared that night dealt with the latter.
In “Toad,” she wonders about her own perspective, being both a part of and separate from nature: “I said, I wondered how it seemed / to him, down there, intimate with the dust.”
That thought is echoed in “At the River Clarion,” a poem done in seven parts. The first lines read: “I don’t know who God is exactly. / But I’ll tell you this. / I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splashed stone /and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking…” Later she continues, “Said the river: I am part of holiness. / And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered the moss beneath the water.” My favorite line comes soon after: “Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.”
But even as she described gorgeous scenes, and the various flowers, trees, animals, rivers and marshes that filled them, there was also an ominous underlying message in the beautiful lines.
Oliver introduced the idea of places one might remember from childhood that simply aren’t there anymore and then read “Violets,” a poem that describes a creek-side patch of violets she visited before “the necessary houses” destroyed it later. “Who would give significance to their absence,” she asks.
In “Meadowlark Sings and I greet Him In Return,” she explicitly mentions “the terrible debris of progress.”
“Tecumseh” describes the Shawnee tribe leader who opposed the United States’ claiming Native American land in 1812. The poem, as those familiar with Tecumseh’s story would guess, is inherently sad: “He vowed / to keep Ohio and it took him / over twenty years to fail…”
But it is not sadness for the sake of sadness. Oliver has a message for us, and that is: “There’s a sickness / worse than the risk of death and that’s / forgetting what we should never forget.” The thought seems to stretch into another poem, “The Sun,” where Oliver writes, “Have you too / gone crazy / for power, / for things?”
Oliver layers these sentiments under the thin veil of blossoms floating on wind, under birds’ songs and webbed feet. She is a master at handling heavy emotions without being heavy-handed. But not all of her poems were so seemingly dark.
She read a few poems about Percy, her beloved dog who ate a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, the famous Hindu scripture, earning the title of, “
Oh, wisest of little dogs.”
Then there was Oliver herself, who casually joked with the audience while she tried to find the right poems in her stacks of books.
“People hit me if I don’t read ‘Wild Geese,’” she said of one of her most famous poems, prompting hearty laughter from the audience.
Most importantly, there were the inspiring calls to action.
In “Sometimes,” Oliver says simply, “Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.”
Another of my favorite lines comes from the poem, “When I Am Among the Trees,” which reads, “Never hurry through the world / but walk slowly, and bow often.”
The fifty minutes of poetry was followed by a short question and answer session led by Willis. One of the most interesting questions was about public interest in poetry, to which Oliver offered the bittersweet response, “Poetry does change lives daily, but it doesn’t change legislation.”
She also took a few opportunities to comment on “slams,” which she obviously finds disagreeable though she also admitted she has never been to one. From my experience, this is definitely a generational issue; but even while I feel people should be open to all forms of poetry, Mary Oliver is a goddess of verse and her opinions do not alter my deep respect for her art (But if Ms. Oliver ever reads this — I would gladly take you to a spoken word event, any time).
During the question and answer segment, Oliver also touched a little bit more on her connection with America’s beloved poet, Millay.
Millay, known for her sonnets and her feminist activism, was already deceased by the time the young Oliver showed up at the door of what is now the Millay Colony for the Arts. But she was drawn there, and so spent these formative years of her life and career soaking up the beauty of this natural wonderland and its artistic legacy.
It’s a magnificent story: imagine this girl — younger than most of us, bold enough to explore a place she was connected to only through her high regard for its owner. The history makes sense when you listen to Oliver’s poems. She might touch on the same subject again and again — the wrens, the rivers, the irises — but each time, she manages to see it with the eyes of a newcomer, an innocent.
I would not consider myself especially “romantic” — not in the literary sense of feeling this intense personal connection with nature. But Oliver’s poems make me want to go outside, to walk slowly and bow often.