• Sat, 9, Feb, 2019 - 5:00:AM

Who was Mary Oliver and why should I read her?

I feel so stupid when it happens. The ‘you’re-a-phony’ siren goes off at such a high screech inside my head - it almost surprises me the neighbours can’t hear it.

I didn’t bloody read Mary Oliver.


It doesn’t help that Oliver was a widely-read Pulitzer Prize winner (WEE OOO) who everyone on my timeline appeared to have adored (WEE OOO WEE OOO), nor that she was of the most successful openly queer poets of all time (WEE OOO WEE OOO WEE OOO, HAND IN YOUR GAY CARD, DO NOT COLLECT $200!).

My literary coming-of-age involved Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, and dozens upon dozens of white male geniuses.

Okay, I’m giving myself a bit of credit there; I don’t know if I read dozens upon dozens of them. But in my experience, reading (listening to, being a fan of) the work of men was the most economical route to becoming a serious person.

No, I didn’t like girly pop music – I listened to Radiohead and Muse and (lol) My Chemical Romance. No, I didn’t read those poems about animals and love, I read Oscar Wilde and Dylan Thomas, and (yikes) Charles Bukowski.

Oh, how I’d been missing out. When I eventually decided to deliberately read (listen to, become a fan of) the work of women, I realised how badly I’d been duped.

But I still hadn’t gotten around to Mary Oliver.

Let me rephrase that.

I still hadn’t the pleasure of Mary Oliver.

And then, on January 17, she died.

Of course, it seems just as phony to read someone straight after they die (flashback to my friends and I rush-purchasing Thriller in 2009).

Let me assure you, the phony-siren was deafening when I picked up a few slim Oliver volumes from Unity Books in the author’s immediate wake. But what can one do about that? Statistically speaking, dying is one of the best things for an artist’s finances.

Such is life – if you will.  

So, who was Mary Oliver anyway?

Mary Oliver was an American poet and essayist who wrote accessible verse, most often about nature. She published her first collection, No Voyage and Other Poems at age 28.

Here she reads one of her most famous works, Wild Geese.

And what of that Pulitzer Prize?

Oliver’s fifth offering, American Primitive, won her the 1984 Pulitzer. I quite enjoy The Kitten, with its gentle, sad, kind simplicity.   

Oliver was prolific, writing and publishing right up until she died – making for a career span of 54 years. In 2016, aged 81, she released  Upstream, a ‘new selection of essays’.

The collection, which ‘contemplates the pleasure of artistic labour’ goes some way to explaining this longevity, but I think the 1995 essay Of Power and Time, from the book Blue Pastures explains this immense productivity even better.

Of Power and Time is a manifesto of sorts, ending with the eternally sad (but inspiring?) sentiment; ‘the most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work […] and gave it neither power nor time.’

In honour of Mary Oliver I intend to give power and time to my own creativity, but I want to commit to something else too: whenever possible, I want to explore the work of other artists before they die.

There will, of course, be those who slip away from me. There will, of course, be those who I was meaning to get to. But as much as I can, I want to honour the artistic callings of others. And by honour, I mean purchase their work.

We need art in our lives. We need music and books and poetry in order to live. And therefore, we need artists. And therefore, living artists need to make a living.

Luckily, we have plenty of agile, very-much-alive artists living among us in Aotearoa. If you’re interested in reading local poetry, check out the Ockham NZ Poetry Award longlist. I recommend Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble.

It rocks.


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