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Reflections on hearing that Mary Oliver has died

The poet Ezra Pound once said that “literature is news that stays news”. How true – and yet I sometimes notice how quickly significant events can drop out of what we agree to call the daily news. The poet Mary Oliver died on 17th January 2019 aged 83. Her poetry served as a reminder to many mindfulness practitioners to stop and take notice of what is happening and to walk gently through the gateway of observation into a world of connection. I think it is fair to say that she became regarded as something of a guru by the mindfulness community. I spent most of December and January in India and when listening to the radio this week I happened to hear that Mary Oliver had passed on. So in a strange way I was pleased to hear the sad news; after all of her encouragement to notice the magic moments of life, it would have felt negligent not to be able to acknowledge her death.

Hearing the news inspired me to make contact with a good friend of mine in the USA called John Topliffe, who is a great admirer of Mary Oliver’s poetry. John wrote back and told me “I benefited greatly from reading her poems and she helped be become more attentive to creation, to people, and to myself”. He also shared his fond memory of hearing her read her poems at the Cathedral of St John Divine in New York City. As the great metaphysical poet John Donne points out no one is “an island, entire of itself”. We suffer from the delusion of separation and poetry is all about connection. In the book “Mindful Heroes” that I am currently helping to write, I share some observations from my lifelong love affair with poetry, stories and meditation: “poetry conveys subtle meaning in the teaching and practice of mindfulness: it touches the parts that concepts cannot reach…..knowing about mindfulness is never enough and might sometimes be an obstacle; science can provide confidence in the purpose and benefits of practicing mindfulness yet the essence of meditation in all its many forms always has been and still remains the art of a beginner’s mind”.

You may well be familiar with the following poem. Can you find the time now to read it again as if for the first time and let it speak to the heart that understands the meaning beyond the sum of the words?

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver (1935 to 2019)

1 Comment

  1. Lovely tribute to a great poet. Thanks for this, Vin.
    I was actually quite saddened by how little coverage Mary Oliver’s life and death received in our press last month. What a missed opportunity to share some of her work!

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