Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose body of work is largely filled with imagery of the natural world — cats, opossums crossing the street, sunflowers and black oaks in the sunshine. Her most recent collection is entitled A Thousand Mornings.
In one poem, "I Happen to Be Standing," Oliver describes herself as witnessing all these things as she stands by her door every morning, notebook and pen in hand. But, she tells NPR's Rachel Martin, she doesn't actually do that every morning. "Almost. I thought, gee, I do lie a little bit, and I should have said, 'which is the way I begin most mornings,' " she laughs.
Mornings with the notebook are part of a regular ritual for Oliver, though. "Most mornings I'm up to see the sun, and that rising of the light moves me very much, and I'm used to thinking and feeling in words, so it sort of just happens."
Those morning moments are a kind of prayer for Oliver. "I think one thing is that prayer has become more useful, interesting, fruitful, and ... almost involuntary in my life," she says. "And when I talk about prayer, I mean really ... what Rumi says in that wonderful line, 'there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.' I'm not theological, specifically, I might pick a flower for Shiva as well as say the hundredth [psalm]."
Oliver says her work has become more spiritual over the years, growing from her love of the poets who came before her and the natural world — but she feels a great sorrow over humanity's lack of care for that world. "The woods that I loved as a child are entirely gone. The woods that I loved as a young adult are gone. The woods that most recently I walked in are not gone, but they're full of bicycle trails," she says.
"And this is happening to the world," Oliver continues, "and I think it is very very dangerous for our future generations, those of us who believe that the world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state, but it is in itself an act of some kind of spiritual thing. I said once, and I think this is true, the world did not have to be beautiful to work. But it is. What does that mean?"
It can be a challenge, over years of writing about the natural world, to find new ways of describing what's out there — especially when so many other poets are writing about the same subject matter. But Oliver says she's up to the challenge. "To find a new word that is accurate and different, you have to be alert for it," she says. "But it's wonderful, it's fun."
"One thing I do know is that poetry, to be understood, must be clear," Oliver adds. "It mustn't be fancy. I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now are, they sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn't necessary shouldn't be in a poem."
Poems from A Thousand Mornings
A THOUSAND MORNINGS
All night my heart makes its way
however it can over the rough ground
of uncertainties, but only until night
meets and then is overwhelmed by
morning, the light deepening, the
wind easing and just waiting, as I
too wait (and when have I ever been
disappointed?) for redbird to sing.
THE FIRST TIME PERCY CAME BACK
The first time Percy came back
he was not sailing on a cloud.
He was loping along the sand as though
he had come a great way.
"Percy," I cried out, and reached to him--
those white curls--
but he was unreachable. As music
is present yet you can't touch it.
"Yes, it's all different," he said.
"You're going to be very surprised."
But I wasn't thinking of that. I only
wanted to hold him. "Listen," he said,
"I miss that too.
And now you'll be telling stories
of my coming back
and they won't be false, and they won't be true,
but they'll be real."
And then, as he used to, he said, "Let's go!"
And we walked down the beach together.
IN OUR WOODS,
SOMETIMES A RARE MUSIC
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.
Then, by the end of morning,
he's gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone.
From A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver. Copyright 2012 by Mary Oliver. Excerpted with permission of Penguin Group.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Mary Oliver is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose body of work is largely filled with imagery of the natural world. Her most recent collection is titled "A Thousand Mornings." I spoke with her from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. She began our interview by reading her poem, "I Happen to Be Standing."
MARY OLIVER: (Reading) I don't know where prayers go or what they do. Do cats pray while they sleep half-asleep in the sun? Does the opossum pray as it crosses the street? The sunflowers, the old black oak growing older every year? I know I can walk through the world along the shore or under the trees with my mind filled with things of little importance. In full self-attendance, a condition I can't really call being alive. Is a prayer a gift or a petition, or does it matter? The sunflowers blaze - maybe that's their way. Maybe the cats are sound asleep, maybe not. While I was thinking this, I happened to be standing just outside my door with my notebook open, which is the way I begin every morning. Then a wren in the privet began to sing. He was positively drenched in enthusiasm. I don't know why. And yet why not? I wouldn't persuade you from whatever you believe or whatever you don't. That's your business. But I thought of the wren singing what could this be if it isn't a prayer? So, I just listened, my pen in the air.
MARTIN: Poet Mary Oliver. I asked her if she in fact begins her days the way she describes in this poem, "I Happen to be Standing."
OLIVER: Almost. I thought, gee, I do lie a little bit. And I should have said, which is the way I begin most mornings.
MARTIN: Talk to me a little bit about that ritual. Do you make it part of the writing discipline to go out into the world and make some observations every day?
OLIVER: I think it began with discipline, because I did understand that any artistic venture requires a lot of discipline. But it's no longer a discipline, it's no longer something I think about. I'm often up - on most mornings - I'm up to see the sun. And that rising of the light moves me very much. And I'm used to thinking and feeling in words, so it sort of just happens.
MARTIN: Have you always done that? Have you always written in the mornings?
OLIVER: Yes, yes. I like the mornings. I like to give the mornings to those first good thoughts. And I suppose in a way it sets up the day.
MARTIN: You have written many collections. How is this one different?
OLIVER: I think one thing is that prayer has become more useful, interesting, fruitful and, again, almost involuntary in my life. And when I talk about prayer, I mean really what that Rumi says in that wonderful line, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. I'm not theological specifically. I might pick a flower for Shiva as well as say the hundredth prayer. The name of the god doesn't interest me so much as the fact there are so many names of that mystery.
MARTIN: Has your work become more prayerful, more spiritual over the years?
OLIVER: I would say yes. Maybe a little bit of that is that the two things I loved from a very early age were the natural world and dead poets, which were my pals when I was a kid. But the concern I have for the natural world is really a very sorrowful business.
MARTIN: Why sorrowful?
OLIVER: Because we aren't doing what we should do to preserve the world. The woods that I loved as a child are entirely gone. The woods that I loved as a young adult are gone. The woods that most recently I walked in, they're not gone but they're full of bicycle trails and - I grew up in a town that was 3,500 people in Ohio, very pastoral and there were woods to go to. That town is now over 250,000 people. And this is happening to the world and I think it is very, very dangerous for our future generations, those of us who believe that the world is not only necessary to us in its pristine state but it is in itself an act of some kind of spiritual thing. I said once, and I think this is true, the world did not have to be beautiful to work, but it is. What does that mean?
MARTIN: Because you write about the natural world and because you write these beautiful meditations about your natural surroundings, as so many others have done, how do you find new words to describe what you see?
OLIVER: I suppose by paying very close, close, close attention to things and seeing new details. I love words. I love the mechanics of poetry. I often speak of the choreography of the poem on the page. And to find a new word that is accurate and different, you have to be alert for it. It's wonderful. It's fun. But one thing I do know is that a poetry to be understand must be clear. It mustn't be fancy. I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now are - they sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn't necessary should not be in the poem.
MARTIN: How do you know when a poem is done?
OLIVER: Oh. Well, I don't know that you ever know but in some way you have made a completion of a thought or a mood or whatever you're doing and it's time to go on with the next one.
MARTIN: Mary Oliver. Her new book of poetry is called "A Thousand Mornings." She joined us from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. Mary, thanks so much for talking with us. It's been a real pleasure.
OLIVER: Thank you, thank you. A pleasure for me too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.