Essay

Mary Oliver Saved My Life

Dispatch from the National Association for Poetry Therapy’s annual conference.
Introduction
At the National Association for Poetry Therapy’s annual conference, the participants swap stories, poems, and their doctor’s numbers. Greg Cook reports on a subculture of people looking to poetry to help them cope with illness and “find coherence in this mad journey.”

BOSTON, SPRING 2006—I am at the National Association for Poetry Therapy’s annual five-day conference at the Courtyard Boston Tremont Hotel’s Empire Ballroom, one of those nondescriptly ornate halls decorated with carpets, columns, and chandeliers of great cascading ropes of glass. The conference program proclaims 18-year-old Ekiwah Adler-Bel

Originally Published: August 22nd, 2006

Greg Cook is a Boston cartoonist and newspaperman who writes regularly about art for the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe. His comics can be found with surprising irregularity in Nickelodeon Magazine. Or just try his 2001 graphic novel Catch As Catch Can. He is a tall skinny fellow with...

Related Content
  1. July 31, 2007
     Steve

    I have been numbly staring
    at the blinking cursor in the
    upper left-hand corner of
    this little box long
    enough.....
    It is July 31st.
    Tommorrow is the month
    who's name I cannot bear
    to speak aloud, or even
    type.....
    Two weeks and three years
    ago today, my precious,
    almost sixteen year old
    daughter and her friend
    were crossing the street on
    a crosswalk when they were
    hit by an inattentive driver.
    My daughter was declared
    braindead and was taken off
    life support 14 hours later.
    Her useful organs and
    tissues were then rushed to
    waiting recipients.....
    Since that time, I have read
    a great deal of poetry and
    purchased a number of
    books and anthologies.I can
    attest to the theraputic
    benefits of poetry.
    To those critics of Mary
    Oliver's poetry, I think they
    should can the sour grapes
    and spend the rest of their
    days attempting to write
    ANYTHING that comes even
    close to a poem like
    Oliver's," The Lilies Break
    Open Over The Dark
    Water"..........
    Read it and weep........

  2. February 25, 2008
     Kathy S.

    The mere fact that poetry therapy is a recognized field with trained professionals is a revelation to me. I had no idea that what I've been doing had a name. As my husband was dying of cancer last year, I dealt with the emotional chaos by writing in a personal journal. After my husband's death in September, poetry began pouring out of me, and I found that for my sanity I had to carry a notebook with me constantly. A day feels incomplete to me if I haven't written at least one poem. My reading habits changed as well. Before my husband's illness, I used to read about a book a week: mostly politics, history, science, cultural critique and fiction. Now, instead, I devour poetry anthologies. This change in my life--becoming a person who can't live without poetry--was not planned or expected; it just happened. Poetry has been powerful, life-giving therapy for me. Little did I realize how universal this must be!

  3. March 20, 2008
     Kate

    Yes, Steve....

    I have been weeping. Mary Oliver's book, Selected and New Poems, lives in my bed. I would not have read it, if I had not had a sudden meeting with grief. It has helped me breathe, let go and see into all these feelings.

    Thank you, Mary Oliver.

  4. June 16, 2008
     Dan C.

    Mary Oliver's poems are like good friends who will neither leave nor forsake. Thirst closes with an amazing epilogue (the title poem). This period is summarized no better than these words from that poem:


    Another morning and I wake up with thirst

    for the goodness I do not have. I walk

    out to the pond and all the way God has

    given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord, I

    was never a quick scholar but sulked

    and hunched over my books past the

    hour and the bell; grant me, in your

    mercy, a little more time. Love for the

    earth and love for you are having such a

    long conversation in my heart. Who

    knows what will finally happen or

    where I will be sent, yet already I have

    given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the

    prayers which, with this thirst, I am

    slowly learning.

  5. November 19, 2008
     Darrell Cruse

    I feel so profoundly stirred by Thirst, I am unable to do much but stare at her words as if spoken just for me.

    I have written maybe 50 poems but now I feel like forming them into the look of leaves to go and blow wherever their 'kin' can! I see as always here in Thirst what my fingers have stammered many times to punch into this laptop. I failed but she didn't. My own thirst is quenched for a time with her words!

  6. December 1, 2008
     Sally W.

    I discovered Mary Oliver, Rumi and some other (now favorite) poets, shortly after I suffered emotional turmoil a few years ago. It was as if she had read my heart and my mind! I had not read poetry since I was required to do so in school. I am so grateful for the meltdown that brought me to reading poetry. I say that therapy and poetry are a natural pairing. Yay!

  7. November 30, 2009
     John Spangler

    I stumbled across these year-old postings, amazed that I had not thought of this myself.

    I am a family physician and professor of family medicine. I can see the value of poetry for (some of) my patients. Many of my patients cannot read or have trouble understanding simple language. But many others could be touched, the way I am touched, by Mary Oliver and others.

    Now I wonder how I can incorporate this into what I do day-to-day.

    Thanks for this helpful essay.

  8. June 29, 2010
     Ryan

    Yes.
    Let us be clear. One can make the case for her technical proficeincy, if that is at issue. Is it so easy, to write like her?

    It is not. Mary Oliver is one of a tiny number of voices that have broken me open, to see the world. Sappho. Marguerite Duras. Jean Toomer. Jack Gilbert. Anais Nin.

    There are authors I adore, and there are authors whose words are so quick to my throat, I find I am crying before I have even understood what I am reading.

    One might say, too, that Duras is simple. One might, if one is not careful, miss the splendor of the world. One might miss, that the descriptions are simple. That, in _The Lover_, the river rushing under her feet is the bodies of dead dogs, the gutted forests of Cambodia, all rushing a few feet underneather her, tipping to empty themselves to the horizon. Because it is so easy to see her heart, one might miss that this is one of the hardest ways to write.

    And one might miss Anais Nin. Of course, a critic never writes like her. Her concise prose, by which she sums up "why I write" in two pages instead of two hundred, is a healthy product of many things. A lifetime writing (her edited journals alone are more than the output of many authors), and years of ruthless editing when she printed her own books and hand set the type herself. Every. Spare. Word. Went.

    One can say that it is easy to write like these authors. One can choose, if one wishes, to have no idea what one is talking about. One can miss how closely people come to not being able to live. One can miss just how hard it is to sleep, knowing that the shuddering instant will pass and we will never again have grass, or skin, in our hands.

    The risk of sneering, is that one might miss the chance to have one's hands suddenly filled, a fistful of bright poppies. One might miss, drowsing in the sun, plush and spinning the evening too close to death's soft, downy fingers. One might miss that every moment of joy depends upon us to find it.

    It is hard. To be vulnerable. To sit down in front of beauty and tremble. To find beauty, to hunt for it. To hunt in the mouth of one's lover -the lustrous names she might say that are not yours. In the broken objects that make it unavoidable-- we will be broken, too. In the sudden rush of dawn pawing you open before the word "lilies" has separated from the bit of cloth you are holding, from the hand you dreamed you were.

    I have met no one who dismisses beauty who had any idea what strength is required to stand in the face of it, and be moved. And stay standing. Mary Oliver rips my heart out. Her words are arresting. Every way I can be broken, she has broken me. There are times, the words alone are exquisite, and just saying them out loud I can't breathe.

    It is strange to me, that people refuse to see. There are many authors I respect, that I do not like. James Salter. I find Mary Oliver's craft to be unimpeachable. And there is a difference between the naive-and-easy representations of beauty, and the long, careful path to manufacturing joy. To leaving presents for ourselves and others. To making the world beautiful. To choosing exactly the words, to have the life that one wants, and still ask every question in case, this time, there is a new answer. Or no answer; just our restless minds reaching to one another. Clicking through the night and tumbling us out of our beds to ask the moon, or the lilies, how to gather sleep.

    If I did not like Mary Oliver, I would respect her as a master of the craft of poetry. Do people even understand? She's written a book about meter and rhyme! It's important to be able to tell the difference between a choice to write free verse and the inability to work differently. It shows. Do we judge, before we know how to do it ourselves?

    But in the end, none if this matters. What matters to me, is that her words exist. That she says, and the saying is a spell that holds me in the night.

    What matters is that when she came to speak in Seattle, for the first time in my life, in a major metropolitan city, I was surrounded by young women, silver-eyed and nuzzling the necks of their lovers.

    When you are gone, Mary Oliver, mouths will kiss the bodies of their loves with your words.

    Life can be an easy grace, when we choose it to be. That is not naive. That is no small thing. It is the only thing.

    Well.
    There you have my two cents. With interest.

  9. September 28, 2010
     Gail Diez

    All I want to do is find a poem by Mary Oliver and I get everything else except the poem Wild Geese why is this so hard?-

  10. January 29, 2011
     Susan Smith

    What a lovely piece. Words about Mary Oliver that echo in my own inward canyons. I could not agree more - there is no other poet that touches me the way Mary Oliver does. I yearn for her words like water and feel her kindred to myself.