page 7 arts geese cover

Courtesy of Gardners Books

January 21, 2019

YANDAVA | Pay Attention, Be Astonished

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While people worldwide were mourning Mary Oliver’s death, I was at home celebrating my 20th birthday. I saw the news scrolling through Tumblr, the platform that had first made me fall in love with her work at the age of 11. You’ve probably seen the lines “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” on Facebook or Twitter or staring down at you accusingly from your middle school English teacher’s classroom wall. However, although Oliver’s work regularly appears on sites like Pinterest, it doesn’t quite translate to social media in the same, trite way as you might think at first glance.

Last semester, I wrote a column criticizing Instapoets like Rupi Kaur for sacrificing depth and poetic language for accessibility in order to gain Internet stardom. Oliver, in contrast, is an example of the poet whose accessibility enthralls the ordinary reader with her language and feeling. Her conversational tone beckons you to sit down with her and take a break from the business and superficiality of everyday life. Despite garnering criticism for the accessibility of her themes and her unornamented language, Oliver’s poetry is neither reductive nor inauthentic. In an interview with NPR, Oliver stated, “Poetry must be clear … I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.” Simple, however, does not mean simplistic. While not difficult to understand at face value, these poems aren’t the sort to fall apart at deeper examination, but continue to ask questions and inspire.

Oliver’s writing is underscored by the hidden depth and darkness of a woman who utilized the natural world as a refuge from a difficult childhood of sexual abuse and family dysfunction. In an interview, she stated, “I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.” An avid walker for much of her life, Oliver took inspiration from the nature she observed, drawing comparisons from critics to other beloved American poets such as Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and Dickinson. Her other idols include the Romantic poets Keats and Shelley.

In the vein of the Romantics, Oliver’s poems are also highly spiritual. Although she mostly wrote in free verse, the rhythm of many of her poems carry the cadence of prayers. For example, take one of her most popular, “Wild Geese.” During the particularly rough patches of my teen angst, I would recite the first part to myself over and over again in my head:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Or “Sometimes,” in which Oliver writes:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

The simplicity of the language gives these words their directness and punch. They are words I like to remember in times of need, times when I feel I’ve lost sight of who I am or what I want from life, when I forget that there’s more than just grades and the daily grind. They are like a message from some benevolent fairy godmother. Her work reminds us of the little profundities that surround us every day, if only we would just bother to look, to contemplate, to let ourselves be amazed by the small, simple things.

Oliver delighted in life, but just as much of her corpus concerns death. In “Every Morning,” she writes of “death and death, messy death— / death as history, death as a habit—.” In another, “When Death Comes,” death is a “hungry bear in autumn,” “an iceberg between the shoulder blades.” Yet Oliver greets death with her characteristic curiosity and wonder. Like the violence of the natural world, the inherent cruelty of predator and prey, death was something she never shirked from, nor took lightly:

Death waits for me, I know it, around

one corner or another.

This doesn’t amuse me.

Neither does it frighten me.

After the rain, I went back into the field of sunflowers.

It was cool, and I was anything but drowsy.

I walked slowly, and listened

to the crazy roots, in the drenched earth, laughing and growing.

Ramya Yandava is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ry86@cornell.edu. Ramy’s Rambles runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.