On 23 September 2021, Lizzi Hawkins resurrected the late great U.S. poet Mary Oliver at the final séance of our 2019-21 tour at Wharf Chambers in Leeds, alongside Malika Booker who communed with the poetry titan Jean 'Binta' Breeze. Watch a recording of the event here, and read Lizzi's resurrection and poems in response to Mary Oliver below.
Content warning: brief mention of sexual abuse
Mary Oliver was born and raised in the suburbs of Cleveland, a city in the state of Ohio in America, which is in the Midwest.
She was born in 1935, between the First and Second world wars, and she grew up during World War Two, which influenced the American domestic situation of her childhood.
She was also born right in the middle of the Great Depression, which was one of the most extreme economic crashes in history, and that had devastating effects across America but it hit Ohio particularly badly. In fact in the years around the time she was born, the unemployment rate in the city of Cleveland was reported to have hit roughly 40%, which — and I’m no economics expert here, but from what I gather — is incredibly, historically high.
She had a quite rural upbringing, her father was a teacher and a sports coach, and her mother was a secretary, and in interviews that she gave early on in her career, she described her upbringing as “nice” (not a hugely convincing word) and “pastoral”, saying she spent huge amounts of time outside, playing alone in the forests and fields around their home. However later on in her life, in the decade or so before she died, she started to give much more open interviews, and she revealed that her childhood had in fact been very difficult, she said that that her family was “dysfunctional”, and that she had been sexually abused at a very young age, and that words and reading and poetry, and also the outdoors and nature, had been a kind of “salvation” for her, in that difficult time, and through the rest of her upbringing.
As a teenager she was really influenced by the work of the famous American poet Edna St Vincent Millay, who was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and who died - to much media coverage - when Mary Oliver was fifteen. In the years after that, whilst she was in high school, Oliver wrote to Millay’s sister, Norma Millay, who was living in Edna’s house sorting her affairs. Oliver went to visit, and ended up living there with Norma Millay on and off for a number of years, helping her sort through all Edna’s papers and doing general secretarial work.
The timeline in this stage of her life is a little bit unclear. We know that she left home as soon as she could after finishing high school, and that the next stage of her life was living and working with Norma Millay archiving Edna’s work and estate. We also know that during this time she attended both Ohio State University and the prestigious Vassar College, which is in New York State, though we don’t know much about the details of that. We also know that even though she was taking those college classes, she never actually received a degree from either university, though the reason for that isn’t completely clear.
She was notoriously private, although as I said earlier she did become more open about her personal life in her later years, but we do know that around this time she met her long term partner, a woman called Molly Malone Cook, who was a photographer from San Francisco. Together they moved to Provincetown in Massachusetts, a seaside town on the very north eastern Atlantic coast of America, near Boston. Provincetown has a reputation for being a haven for LGBTQ+ people, which I’m assuming was part of the motivation to move there.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that being in a lesbian relationship in America in the 1960s was not easy, and that’s perhaps part of the reason that her relationship and her sexuality are very rarely directly spoken about in her writing. Although I think you can see small glimpses of it coming through in some places, for example if you choose to read perhaps her most famous poem ‘Wild Geese’ through a queer perspective, the lines “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” take on a whole new meaning. As a queer person myself, those lines resonated with me in that way.
We also know that around this time, when Mary was 28, she published her first collection of poems, which was called No Voyage and Other Poems and was well received. In the following years, she wrote more collections, taught at several universities, and started to be recognised by a number of high profile poetry prizes. By the time she published her fifth collection, which was called American Primitive, in the mid-1980s, she had won the Pulitzer Prize, becoming only the second woman to do so, after Edna St Vincent Millay.
She became more and more successful, and has been described by multiple sources as America’s best-selling poet. She has huge pop cultural recognition, receiving admiration from lots of big names outside of literature like Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and all the big newspapers, and she was probably one of the most well-known and loved poets in the country at the time. In her personal life, her and Molly had completely fallen in love with Provincetown, and had stayed there all that time, up until Molly’s death in 2005, at which point they’d been together more than 40 years. Following the bereavement, Mary moved to Florida, where she lived out her final years, as a kind of superstar recluse, before she died of cancer in 2019.
On her death, she was, unsurprisingly, eulogised in newspapers across the world, it was covered heavily by the media, with people calling her one of America’s finest poets. Her poem ‘The Summer Day’ (which you can read here) went viral after her death. You might recognise the final lines:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
There’s a really funny quote from an interview that Mary Oliver gave with the journalist Maria Shriver, where Shriver says, “One line of yours I often quote is, "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" What do you think you have done with your one wild and precious life?” And Mary Oliver says, “I used up a lot of pencils.”
I think that poem also really speaks to Oliver’s talent as a nature poet. I know that that label in poetry can sometimes be thrown around, sometimes as a way to minimise the work of a poet, or to say someone’s work is kind of like two-dimensional or boring, and is done particularly towards women poets. There’s this idea that women writing about nature is too emotive and not intellectual, which is obviously ridiculous. And Oliver, whilst being so widely praised, unfortunately didn’t escape from misogynistic criticisms of this kind being levelled at her. She was also criticised in another way that I think is also very misogynistic, for being “too popular”, or “too accessible”, which is a really strange insult, and which is I think a very common snobbish way of degrading the work of women, particularly women who have been very successful.
But when I use the term nature poet here, I just mean that Oliver did mostly write about nature – the large proportion of her poetry is, at least on first reading, about the natural world. But, and I think it’s clear from that poem, she wrote about so much more than that. She wrote about what it is to be alive, what it is to be human, to move through the world, and our complex relationship, both personally, and as a species, to the world around us.
I think her work is also particularly poignant in terms of the climate crisis that we’re starting to live through. And that’s not a retrospective application, of a modern understanding into poetry that’s forty or fifty years old. In fact, Oliver has been really candid in talking about the devastation that humans have inflicted on the natural world, and how people are losing their connection to nature more and more. And what I think is really interesting is that she’s said that she saw a kind of purpose of her work in that way, she’s quoted as saying:
I just happen to think you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So I try to do more of the “Have you noticed this wonderful thing? Do you remember this?” I try to praise. If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like.
There’s also a real sense of humility running through her poetry. There are recurring comments about how it’s our purpose as humans, to pay attention, there’s this idea of being custodial, that we’re not in charge, not the most important thing, but rather just another one species of animal, like the rest of the species on earth.
I think her poem ‘Early Morning My Birthday’ from a longer series called ‘Rain’ really gets at that point. You can read it here.
What I love most about Mary Oliver’s work, and I think is the reason why so many other people love her work so much, is that she’s not afraid to talk about big subjects. She’s not afraid to talk frankly about life and death, and purpose, and what it is to exist in the world. As a poet, it can be quite daunting to try to tackle those big subjects, but she does it with such grace and comfort and ease.
For the commission that I was asked to write, I wanted to try and overcome that hesitancy about big subjects, and try to be inspired by how Oliver does it, in my own work. So I’ve written a sequence of poems that about Mary Oliver and her life. But I’ve also tried to sort of channel that energy of tackling the big questions into the poems as well, which was a challenge for me, but something I really enjoyed doing.
Three Sonnets For Mary Oliver
by Lizzi Hawkins
Mary, this morning
I’m in the gardens,
writing, and thinking of you, and a robin
lands next to me on the benches, his tiny body
glossy and thrumming like a car engine.
He’s so close it feels like some kind of magic,
some trespass, into a place that doesn’t belong to me,
that has its own machinery, its ancient language
of flight and hollow bone.
Mary, I think that was the kind of world you moved through,
each animal universe, and the earth’s wild gospel, opening
themselves to you – you saw everything.
The life people wanted you to have was a small house,
but you looked out through the windows,
and you opened the front door, and you walked.
is where you’re buried,
but I think Ohio has your heart,
its acres of grassland shaking and golden.
Your America had old bones, was full of the old gods,
not the kind that cared if you had a wife,
but the kind that moved the phases of the moon, breathed life
into the blackthorn in February, swelling the lungs of spring.
Mary, when you died, the alder groves bent in the wind,
made a green song of their grief, and the beaches
of Provincetown were one part less loved than before,
but something of you is alive in everything,
the earth’s dark vein has your name on it,
and to read you is to tap into some other way of being,
is to dig your fingers and toes into the dirt and feel it speak.
Mary, the world
was a slack string inside of you,
and you pulled both ends, 'til you were a taut thing,
humming, a bright and jangling nerve.
These autumn evenings I could almost
feel like that, on the cusp of everything –
the darkness turning around me,
the falling amber cathedral of the leaves.
Right now, we are all living at the boundaries,
every second unrolling in front of us
the new threshold of our lives,
which is where you lived, always,
seeing past yourself, asking us, over and over,
to be brave, to look out into the world, to know
its billion tiny universes, its shining, ready, gift.
Watch an edited recording of the event at Wharf Chambers, Leeds, below.
Lizzi Hawkins is a poet from Leeds. She is a proud graduate of both The Writing Squad, and Ilkley Young Writers, with whom she has performed in venues across Yorkshire. Lizzi’s poems are published in The Rialto, The North, The Cadaverine, The Compass Magazine and several anthologies. She is a winner of the 2017 Poetry Business New Poets Prize with her debut pamphlet Osteology, and has been commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.
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This project is supported by Arts Council England. Illustrations by Lily Arnold.