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"Every Morning The World is Created": A Poet's Reminder to Breathe

Photo courtesy of Gabe McCauley, and written by Bella Coyne

Mary Oliver is an American poet, born in Ohio in 1935. While many writers are appreciated only after death, Oliver belongs to that selective club of poets whose work was beloved while they were alive. This alone is a rare feat. And, yes, her work is beautiful – but why does she matter, 89 years after her birth? 

In a broad sense, she gave writers permission to be writers and not celebrities; to be poets and not graduates; to be observers and not consumers. In fact, in her early work, she is rarely there.  When she published her first collection (No Voyage, and Other Poems) in 1965, her audience fell in love with her writing and her interpretation of the world, instead of falling in love with her as a character in her stories. Perhaps a little historical context will help us understand better why she was so dearly loved – the Civil Rights movement was exploding across the South, the first American walked in space, the World’s Fair was lighting up New York. The world was changing rapidly and America had conquered the galaxy. The American public needed something timeless. Mary Oliver gave them precisely that by inviting them back into the natural world – “into the night where time lies shattered”. 

She is often portrayed as a mysterious figure, lonely and alone in nature, when in fact, she was not. Oliver lived for nearly 40 years with a partner to whom she dedicated all of her work. A decidedly private woman, as she explained in an interview with the On Being podcast, “I very much wished not to be noticed, and to be left alone, and I sort of succeeded.” But when she did plainly discuss her life, she was honest and succinct: she had a ghastly childhood. She often lived off of what nature provided. As she herself put it, “I saved my own life.” 

In her poem ‘The Journey’, she describes a figure escaping from a house filled with shouting. “But you didn’t stop./You knew what you had to do…you strode deeper and deeper into the world,/determined to do/the only thing you could do–/determined to save/the only life you could save.” This is the first in a series of poems about her childhood. Beyond that, it is a nod to the American Dream, and the notion that our lives are in our hands alone. It echoes that pulling-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps idea. 

Oliver’s work invites us into a distinctly American world. From the backwoods of Ohio, to the shores of Cape Cod, she comes home to nature and wants us to join her. In ‘Landscape’, she writes, “Every morning I walk like this around/the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart/ever close, I am as good as dead.” She places a deep emphasis on observing the world outside of herself in ‘October’: “so this is the world./I’m not in it./It is beautiful.” She laughs at how small she is against the backdrop of the woods in ‘The Moths’: “You aren’t much, I said/one day to my reflection/in a green pond,/and grinned.” 

Yes, she’s introspective. She’s romantic. She’s self-effacing. But so is every other poet. Why does Mary Oliver still matter? Because when she was alive, Oliver did effortlessly what many poets only achieve posthumously: she resonated. Her work is undeniably human and authentic. Every word she wrote is timeless. Even after her death, we know for certain they will live on. She encourages us to stop, to realize how we are so very small in the vast natural world. "Every morning the world is created", she writes in 'Morning Poem', reminding us how nature tries again each day, and thus, we can, too.

Just as the changing world of the 60s needed her, we need her, too – perhaps even more so today. As social media takes our focus off of reality, as politics warp and twist behind the scenes, and as artificial intelligence tries to dictate the future, maybe Mary Oliver is the breath of air we all desperately need. In her poem 'Magellan', she encourages us in our uncertainty:

“For what is life but reaching for an answer?/And what is death but a refusal to grow?”

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