Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 2, 2009

Mary Oliver Reads at Smith College

Last Tuesday night was warm enough to enjoy sitting on steps waiting for my friend Margaret, watching people in actual droves head to John Green Hall to hear poetry. Back bents from the climb up Elm Street, intentness seared the autumn air. Mary Oliver did not disappoint her 2000 plus admirers. She read from several of her twenty-six books, along with some yet-to-be-published poems. There were a lot of ponds, otters, wild geese, pines, ferns, and, from her newest poems, an adored little dog. Afterward, my friend and I wondered if this was her first dog: the poems had that first romance air about them.

Mary Oliver talked some about the ethic that’s formed her life’s work: to pay attention, to be amazed, and to tell about it. She said that in her Provincetown home, people tease about what makes a good walk for Mary: she starts out in a small blaze, gradually slows down, then ends up standing perfectly still. And she introduced a poem telling of how an editor offered to publish it if she took out the word, “beautiful.” She said no. Many cheered this short story, but I kept my hands in my lap. Mary Oliver reveres the world and seems like a happy poet, words that don’t always go together. Fine, but I’m not always excited to find the word “beauty” in a poem any more than I’d think the poet would love a tree with such a sign hanging from a branch. I want to see what she sees, and make an assessment myself.

Well, one quibble, and why not join her in seeing a poet as a performing artist: one who performs admiration? What a pleasure to leave with many people looking radiant, and speaking of red birds and purple iris. Our local women’s colleges, Smith and Mount Holyoke, have a lovely tradition of pairing older alums with students, and, when I walked the packed sidewalks to my car, I expect it was this kind of match I witnessed between two young women by a white-haired women with a cane keeping out of the crowd. The three women stood on a lawn bending their heads for a good view of the moon.

It’s Poetry Friday! To read more blog posts about poetry or poems, visit Crossover



  1. “to pay attention, to be amazed, and to tell about it.”
    I was struck by how close Ms. Oliver’s definition of her life’s work is to my definition of citizen science!

  2. Oh, I would have loved to hear her. I adore all of her poems. Except for the ones that use the word “beautiful.”

  3. What an engaging presence she must have been!
    Still…bravo, Jeannine, for listening to her insights but not ignoring your own truths.

  4. Yes, just to maybe broaden the definition of “tell.” I think Mary Oliver is a favorite poet of naturalists, and her dedication to paying close attention is certainly done by those who write about nature such as Rachel Carson, Thoreau, and your guy Fabre.
    It’s a great motto for anyone.

  5. I love her poems, too! I laughed at your caveat. I hope I didn’t seem too stern, but so often less is more, and usually that’s the strength in her poems.

  6. It was a wonderful night. I guess at some point among all those words there is going to be a small voice in the head that goes: um, no. But mostly it was yes yes yes.

  7. Thanks for sharing your experience with the reading. I don’t know her poetry, but I’ll look for it.

  8. I think you’ll like it, Lorraine. I tend to like some of her work from the 1990s best.
    Have a good weekend!

  9. Wish I’d Been There from Jane Yolen
    I am in Scotland, which has its own beauty, but was distressed to miss that reading.
    However, I remember John Ciardi commenting on one of my poems submitted to Saturday Review back when I was young. “Don’t use the word beauty. It’s inert.” I think he meant that I should show that beauty, not signpost it. That’s a very wise statement.
    Jane Yolen

  10. Re: Wish I’d Been There from Jane Yolen
    Jane, I’m sorry you missed the reading, but hope you enjoy these last days in Scotland. It’s always nice to be reminded how much we learn from editors! Thanks for writing here! Jeannine

  11. Mary Oliver’s work is always moving to me and I wish I could’ve transported myself to this reading…
    What an interesting story — the beauty one. I’d love to hear the poem myself to see what she meant, and what you meant, too…

  12. I know I’m really in the minority here, but I’m not a fan of Mary Oliver’s work, especially the more recent ones. I heard her read in P’town a few years ago and was very disappointed, not so much in the sentiments as in the words. Too many like “beauty” which did not stir my imagination. I felt she was coasting. I know tons of folks adore her, but she doesn’t really do it for me. –Ellen W.

  13. Liz, I just picked up All the World and will be happy to bring it to a baby shower next week. In my confessions of being curmudgeonly, I might as well admit I’m not a huge baby shower fan unless babies are there. But I love the mom to be. I’m kind of hoping if I have to go ooh and ahhh over baby stuff, they’ll let me read your book to all.
    I’m glad you find Mary Oliver’s work always moving, and I do wish you could have been there in a room truly filled with love. Personally I love some poems more than others. I like best when I’m transported to a place and see through her clear eyes without much commentary, though sometimes the summings up at the end seem perfect. I think if an editor told me I like this poem but without the word “beautiful,” I’d be embarrassed about putting in an adjective that seemed unnecessary, and grateful it was spotted and the beauty apparently came across without needing that word to point it out.
    I hope that better explains what I meant. I could be just repeating myself.

  14. I totally here you and absolutely get what you’re saying. In theory, I’m in complete agreement and I try to ditch adjectives as frequently as possible. Likewise the evil adverbs.
    I think one thing I like about Mary Oliver, though, is how unabashed she is in loving the natural word and being moved by it. So along with the way she describes something, I appreciate the fact that I’m also watching a human being in ecstasy over the sensual lushness and miraculous workings of plant, earth and animal. Does that make any sense?

  15. That totally makes sense and I love how you put it. I think that shared rapture with the natural world was what lit those 2000 faces on Tuesday night.

  16. Your line about the “first dog” made me chuckle. Yes, that’s a true romance. And you made me see those three faces gazing up at the moon — thank you.
    One of the things that makes Mary Oliver’s work so alive for me is that she is so specific in her language and observations. So what surprises me about the “beautiful” story is that she felt so strongly about such a vague word. (One that I am guilty of using too often, I might add.)

  17. Well, I don’t want to be the no-beauty police. I guess it’s all in the context. I just listened to The Chocolate War on audio (talk about being behind in my reading; Cormier-adoring Jo I know was scandalized when I mentioned this, but too polite to say so). Anyway, I loved how the thug types said, Beautiful. And there was a great line, which I’ll mess up, about how there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing a teacher get upset. I think the word works best when it surprises.
    But you would have loved Mary Oliver’s reading.

  18. THanks for sharing, Jeannine. I’d love to here her speak–sounds like it was fabulous.

  19. Beautiful!
    I’ve been reading ‘Sing Me the Creation’ by Paul Matthews – the section on exclamation. He talks about the fine edge a poet must walk between excessive use of adjectives or labelled emotions and true utterance of feeling (‘cried out with vigour’). “Without [feeling] we are left with only artifice and literary devices” he says. I often read Mary Oliver’s poems in my creative writing classes because I believe she walks this line with grace and honesty. As writers and poets we are often afraid of expressing our feelings too explicitly, lest we open ourselves to the old “show don’t tell” criticism. Mary Oliver is not afraid to be real. And I admire that! God bless her beautiful soul.

  20. Re: Beautiful!
    Thank you for this eye-opening comment. I’m going to look for “Sing Me the Creation.”

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