January 27, 2019: “Resilience: The Poetry of Mary Oliver”

(photo credit: medium.com)

Rev. Dr. Susanne Intriligator

“Resilience: The Poetry of Mary Oliver”

Melrose UU Church January 27, 2019

A reading and sermon for two voices: Rev. Susanne, the preacher, and Jane F. as “the voice of Mary Oliver”

READING: “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver, read by Jane F.

SERMON: “Resilience: The Poetry of Mary Oliver” by Rev. Susanne Intriligator

On the morning in 1984 when it was announced that she had won the Pulitzer Prize, Mary Oliver was found in Provincetown, at the town dump, sifting through piles of refuse.

“What are you doing?” called out an old friend, “looking for your old manuscripts?”

No. Mary was in fact looking for used shingles, with which to fix up her house.

Yes, she knew about the prize, she had got the call that morning, but it didn’t change her plans for the day.

Fame, accolades, didn’t affect Mary so much, because they weren’t her goal or even part of her plan. They were incidentals, stuff that happened along with way, stuff that would not distract her from her daily job – to walk, to forage (sometimes for food, sometimes for shingles), to notice and mostly to write, every day, like clockwork.

She liked to say that when, in the hardware store in Provincetown, she frequently met the local plumber, she’d greet him with a friendly “How’s your work going?” and he’d ask her just the same question. There was no sense of difference. Both just doing their jobs, in the order of things.

In fact, for Oliver, the dailyness of it – holding to her routines and commitments – held the key to her productivity. She believed, perhaps paradoxically, that discipline and creatively were deeply coupled. Discipline set the stage, held open the space for creativity to enter.

In “The Poetry Manual“, her handbook for writers, she wrote:

If Romeo and Juliet had made their appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet – one or the other lagging, or afraid, or busy elsewhere – there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing a poem is not so different – it is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen.

The part of the psyche that works in concert with consciousness and supplies a necessary part of the poem – the heart of the star as opposed to the shape of a star, let us say – exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious. It learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself – soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.

Why should it? It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime. Who knows anyway what it is, that wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live? But we do know this: if it is going to enter into a passionate relationship and speak what is in its own portion of your mind, the other responsible and purposeful part of you had better be a Romeo. . . . it won’t involve itself with anything less than a perfect seriousness.

In an interview years later, Krista Tippett asked Oliver about that “wild, silky part of ourselves” might be. She guessed it’s what others call a soul. Oliver did not disagree.

To think deeply, to live deeply, Oliver believed, you must make

a daily date with your soul.

Last weekend, after Chuck F., the congregation’s president, and I decided that we needed to cancel Sunday’s service, I started thinking about this Sunday, today. Monday and Tuesday came, and I asked myself, what do my people need to hear a sermon about now?

I had planned to talk about climate change, but I just couldn’t face it. With the federal shutdown lagging on and all those workers struggling to feed their families, with ten inches of snow on the ground and a layer of ice hardening on top that, with every day a new shocking revelation about the Trump administration begging my attention, I felt I didn’t have the energy or the will to turn my mind toward another complicated crisis.

I needed a respite, and I wondered if you did, too. I thought we might be better served, in these dark and difficult days, by stopping to look for the light.

In the midweek newsletter and Facebook, I asked you for your reflections on Mary Oliver, perhaps America’s most well-loved poet and a bard for UUs. She died just 10 days ago, at age 83.

Jane R. shared: Like many people, I just love the gentle, wide-eyed wisdom of her poetry. The way she describes the natural world is always both surprising but inevitable. I read one of her poems and find myself thinking YES! EXACTLY! over and over again. And yet, I feel like I’ve gained something new.

Nita P. wrote: I learned from Oliver that poetry needn’t be wordy or intellectual to be deeply meaningful.

Jane F. shared: Mary Oliver’s poetry made me feel less weird about my love for the rich smell of a shaded blanket of pine needles in summer.

Phyllis B. wrote that she first became aware of Oliver right here, in this sanctuary, in 1999, when Rev. Phyllis O’Connell read an Oliver poem at Phyllis B.’s mother’s memorial service. Phyllis B. was so taken with the poet that she studied her work and, along with friends, put on a worship service here centering on Oliver’s work in 2004, 15 years ago this week.

Mary Jane Oliver was born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a semi-rural suburb in 1935. Her father was a social studies teacher in the Cleveland school system, and her mother was a secretary at a local school. According to Oliver it was very dysfunctional family, and she suffered sexual abuse as a child. To escape, she went walking in the woods.

It was a very bad childhood for everybody, every member of the household, not just myself, I think. And I escaped it, barely, with years of trouble. But I did find the entire world in looking for something. But I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.

The day after Oliver graduated from high school, she got in a car and drove east. Days later, she found herself near Steepletop, the home of pastoral poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and on a whim, she went in. She stayed seven years.

Inside, Oliver befriended the late poet’s sister Norma and helped her to care for the estate and to organize Edna’s papers. While there, Oliver took classes at Vassar College but she never finished a degree.

After that she moved to New York City’s East Village, to live the life of a poet. Years later, however, on a return trip to Steepletop, Oliver came in to find at the kitchen table the photographer Molly Malone Cook, ten years her senior, who, she was to discovered, happened to live across the street from her in the East Village.

“I took one look and fell, hook and tumble . . . M. took one look at me, and put on her dark glasses, along with an obvious dose of reserve.”

Back home in New York City, they began slowly to see each other.

In 1964, the two moved to Provincetown, which would be their home together for 4 decades. There, on the beaches and shorelines, in the woods and by the ponds, Oliver walked every day

and stopped,

and noticed,


and found her voice.

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.

Clear, poignant observations of nature became her signature, which later in her career led to popularity and healthy sales – well, for a poet, the sales were remarkable. But academics remained skeptical, and reviews were mixed. Of Oliver, Vicki Graham wrote: “her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk.”

Oliver boldly flouted that risk. She went beyond a “close association” with nature, aiming for a total dissolution, a melting away of the divisions both between the observer and the observed – and between the poet and her reader.

Always I wanted the “I.” Many of the poems are “I did this. I did this. I saw this.” I wanted the “I” to be the possible reader, rather than about myself. It was about an experience that happened to be mine but could well have been anybody else’s. That was my feeling about the “I.” It enjoined the reader into the experience of the poem. I became the kind of person who did the walking and the scribbling but shared it if they wanted it.

For someone so introverted, so devoted to spending time alone with her muse, surprisingly, Oliver viewed her writing as a social act.

Poetry is wishes for a community. It’s a community ritual, certainly. And that’s why, when you write a poem, you write it for anybody and everybody. And you have to be ready to do that out of your single self. It’s a giving. It’s always – it’s a gift. It’s a gift to yourself but it’s a gift to anybody who has a hunger for it.

“Although few poets have fewer human beings in their poems than Mary Oliver,” wrote the poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns in The New York Times, “it is ironic that few poets also go so far to help us forward.”

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

You belong here, in the family of things. Every day and all the time. Even – and especially – when it doesn’t feel that way.

How, how can we survive the doldrums and the dark days, the waiting and the not-knowing, and our own deep and unmet longings? How?

The world offers itself to your imagination.

Get out into nature. Walk. Stop, notice. Report. Repeat.

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,

Today. Be idle, for just a moment. And be blessed.

And tomorrow and the next day. Make a date, every day, with your soul, that wild, silky part of yourself that yearns to speak, to feel, to touch.

Let it out, let it breathe, and let it guide you onward, toward the light.

This is resilience . . . and art . . . . and hope.



  1. Krista Tippett’s interview for “On Being”
  2. “What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand” in The New Yorker
  3. “On the Road with Mary Oliver” in the Beacon Broadside
  4. “Mary Oliver on the Mystery of the Human Psyche, the Secret of Great Poetry, and How Rhythm Makes Us Come Alive” from Brain Pickings
  5. “Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Elegy for Her Soul Mate” from Brain Pickings
  6. “Mary Oliver: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who cracked mainstream success” in The Independent


Readings from Mary Oliver’s writings are italicized (unless credit is given otherwise)