“Bird” by Mary Oliver
Discovering Mary Oliver’s poetry leaves one with the same breathless wonder felt as a child waking up on the first morning of a delicious vacation at a summer cottage. There will be everything to explore ; there will be the fields, the woods, the rock beach, the meadows.
There will be all of it, laying ahead of you in sun and shadow.
The poet Stanley Kunitz once said, “Mary Oliver’s poetry is fine and deep; it reads like a blessing. Her special gift is to connect us with our sources in the natural world, its beauties and terrors and mysteries and consolations.”
Indeed, much of Oliver’s writing deals with the outdoors and with a grand, vital celebration of life.
Yet within this celebration the author often turns her considerable talents inward to contemplate mortality. Certainly she’s explored this with great mastery in works such as “Poem for the Anniversary” and many others.
Here for your consideration today is Oliver’s brief essay entitled “Bird.”
“Bird” is from Oliver’s latest essay collection, Upstream (note: in some earlier publications such as this magazine excerpt, it was called “The Christmas Bird”.) The selection was suggested by Wonderlings book club member Shabnam Mirchandani. Enjoy! Have you visited Upstream?
“Of Power and Time”
Another brief glimpse into Mary Oliver’s collection, Upstream can be had in this week’s second selection, the essay “Of Power and Time.” Here, Oliver discusses the charge given to artists who would be both in creative space and of the world at large. Do you work creatively? If so, how do you carve out time and space to honor this? And let’s explore this question: must we venture into a wild place to create true art?
As supplemental reading to Oliver’s essay collection, it’s worthwhile to explore any one of her many, fine poetry collections (the reading and discussion of these could fill the syllabus of a college course for several years).
If you are new to her poetry, here is an excellent starting place: “Why I Wake Early,” read by the author:
And “Morning” (from New and Selected Poems, Volume One, Beacon Press, 1992):
A bit about Mary Oliver . . .
A private person by nature, Oliver has given very few interviews over the years. Instead, she prefers to let her work speak for itself. And speak it has, for the past five decades, to countless readers. The New York Times recently acknowledged Mary Oliver as “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” Born in a small town in Ohio, Oliver published her first book of poetry in 1963 at the age of 28; No Voyage and Other Poems, originally printed in the UK by Dent Press, was reissued in the United States in 1965 by Houghton Mifflin. Oliver has since published many works of poetry and prose (the complete list appears below).
As a young woman, Oliver studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but took no degree. She lived for several years at the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in upper New York state, companion to the poet’s sister Norma Millay. It was there, in the late ’50s, that she met photographer Molly Malone Cook. For more than forty years, Cook and Oliver made their home together, largely in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived until Cook’s death in 2005.
Over the course of her long and illustrious career, Oliver has received numerous awards. Her fourth book, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. She has also received the Shelley Memorial Award; a Guggenheim Fellowship; an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Achievement Award; the Christopher Award and the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for House of Light; the National Book Award for New and Selected Poems; a Lannan Foundation Literary Award; and the New England Booksellers Association Award for Literary Excellence.
Oliver’s essays have appeared in Best American Essays 1996, 1998, 2001; the Anchor Essay Annual 1998, as well as Orion, Onearth and other periodicals. Oliver was editor of Best American Essays 2009.
Oliver’s books on the craft of poetry, A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance, are used widely in writing programs. She is an acclaimed reader and has read in practically every state as well as other countries. She has led workshops at various colleges and universities, and held residencies at Case Western Reserve University, Bucknell University, University of Cincinnati, and Sweet Briar College. From 1995, for five years, she held the Catharine Osgood Foster Chair for Distinguished Teaching at Bennington College. She has been awarded Honorary Doctorates from The Art Institute of Boston (1998), Dartmouth College (2007) and Tufts University (2008). Oliver currently lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the inspiration for much of her work.
(official biography from Oliver’s web site)
For further enrichment:
In her writing and interviews, the writer Mary Oliver often acknowledges her stylistic and inspirational indebtedness to several well-known male authors of New England/Early America; Whitman, Poe, Emerson and Thoreau . . .
Indeed, Oliver’s collection Upstream mentions these iconic Transcendentalist authors often and lovingly.
Similarly, in his Wonderlings interview, the wilderness guide and “Marginalia” author Michael Engelhard also recommended reading Thoreau for inspiration.
In particular, this essay, “Walking” (Engelhard actually emailed it to us as a “PS” to his interview.)
Thoreau wrote “Walking” toward the very end of his life, as a visionary explication of the “absolute freedom and wildness.” Per Thoreau, one needs “wild and dusky knowledge” more than lettered learning. Thoreau undercuts the notion of “Useful Knowledge,” preferring instead “Useful Ignorance” or “Beautiful Knowledge.”
It seems fitting to pair it here, as Oliver echoes some of these same sentiments in her work.
The work, while long, is conveniently divided into manageable sections which can be enjoyed as mini-passages or all at once as you wish. Enjoy this peripatetic read . . .
The Complete Works of Mary Oliver
No Voyage and Other Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1965)
The River Styx, Ohio, and Other Poems (Harcourt Brace, 1972)
Twelve Moons (Little, Brown, 1979)
American Primitive (Little, Brown, 1983)
Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986)
House of Light (Beacon Press, 1990)
New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Beacon Press, 1992)
White Pine (Harcourt Brace, 1994)
West Wind (Houghton Mifflin,1997)
The Leaf and the Cloud (Da Capo, 2000)
What Do We Know (Da Capo, 2002)
Owls and Other Fantasies (Beacon Press, 2003)
Why I Wake Early (Beacon Press, 2004)
Blue Iris (Beacon Press, 2004)
Wild Geese (Bloodaxe, 2004) (UK)
New and Selected Poems, Volume Two (Beacon Press, 2005)
Thirst (Beacon Press, 2006)
Red Bird (Beacon Press, 2008)
The Truro Bear and Other Adventures (Beacon Press, 2008)
Evidence (Beacon Press, 2009)
Swan (Beacon Press, 2010)
Chapbooks and Special Editions
The Night Traveler (Bits Press, 1978)
Sleeping in the Forest (Ohio Review, 1978)
Provincetown (Bucknell University Press, 1980)
A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt Brace, 1994)
Blue Pastures (Harcourt Brace, 1995)
Rules for the Dance (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)
Winter Hours (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
Long Life (Da Capo, 2004)
Our World, with photographs by Molly Malone Cook (Beacon Press, 2007)