For a long time, Mary Oliver, who died last month at age 83, did not tour with her celebrated poems, as her life partner and literary manager Molly Malone Cook was ill and in Mary’s care until she passed away in 2005.
When in 2006 Oliver decided to return to the public fold, three Minnesota groups assembled to invite her — Literary Witnesses at Plymouth Congregational Church, the Loft Literary Center, and WomenSpirit, a consortium of regional spiritual groups.
Oliver’s well-deserved fee was astronomical by our standards, $10,000 plus expenses, several times more than Literary Witnesses had ever paid another poet.
So we had to arrange for paid tickets, and to video her voice and image into side halls and theater at Plymouth after the 840 seats of the Sanctuary filled. All proved needed. Tickets sold out in an hour, and when dawn broke on the day of her reading, May 7, 2007, people from as far away as Chicago were camped on the church lawn.
Fourteen hundred people morticed into every crevice of the church that day to bask in her voice, her courage, her art, and we could have sold twice that many tickets had we the room.
When she returned a few years later, it was to the cavernous State Theatre, presented by the Loft and Hennepin Theatre Trust.
How did a contemporary poet achieve such an uncommon pull on the American psyche and spirit?
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and many other accolades, Oliver’s openhanded poems feel like an alternate cultural text of prayers and psalms.
Although she wrote “I don’t know what prayer is,” she embodied it in her quiet practice of wandering the ponds, woods and beaches of Cape Cod and living out her “instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
What is often missed in a discussion of Mary Oliver poems is the astonishment of her craft — she wrote two books on the subject. How seductively she invites readers in, with simple questions, harmonic sound, deft images and clarion beauty, until the grip on the throat of the final lines. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”
In response to an audience question, she revealed a detail of that craft. She imagined busy readers flipping through a magazine. How could she capture their attention for the entire length of the poem? Her answer became the iconic “The Sun,” one long sentence! She worked hard to earn readers’ attention.
She was asked what poets she loved. She immediately answered, “Robert Bly.” When she joined a few of us for wine and secret cigarettes after her lengthy book-signing, she spent much of her time with Robert and Ruth Bly.
Thank you, Mary Oliver, for coming to Minnesota so that thousands could thank you in person for your sublime, courageous voice while listening to revered poems that so many of us memorized and that became part of America’s poetic and spiritual landscape.
An appreciation of the life of Mary Oliver will be held at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 3 at Judson Memorial Baptist Church, 4101 Harriet Av. S., Mpls. All are welcome.
James Lenfestey is a writer in Minneapolis and former director of Literary Witnesses.