Devotion sits silently on my bookshelf. I like to think that it enjoys living there, by the window, by the river, overlooking the vast canvas of the sky, and the trees, and feeling the warm wash of buttery sunlight every evening. But a layer of dust has accumulated on its surface — untouched for some time. Yet, it still patiently, silently waits for me to flip open its pages one more time — waits for me to be inspired and to be left in awe by its sheer wisdom.
The ‘Devotions’ in question is a collection of Mary Oliver’s greatest and most enduring poems — a collection of secular psalms, musings on nature, and reasons to go on living. As a child, the American poet lived in a difficult home — so time and time again, she found herself running to the forest as a means of escape. In fact, it was there, within the folds of the trees, that Oliver kindled a passion for the natural world. To her, the forest was a place of magic, in which she built huts of sticks and wrote her first poems. Along with her love of nature, her adoration of poetry stayed with her throughout her adult life. After establishing a career as poet, Oliver, along with her partner, Molly Malone Cook, moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts — and there, too, amongst the rocks, birds, and mollusks, that she found an immense spring of inspiration for her poetry. The natural world is, without doubt, the golden string that runs through her oeuvres.
And so, I did flip through Devotions again, simply unable to avoid its quiet calling. I landed on page 347. On the clean, cream leaf of paper, a poem called Wild Geese unfurls itself.
Upon Oliver’s death in 2019, when Wild Geese began trending on Twitter, and on other social media platforms, an overflow of her other poems took over the rhythm of peoples’ feeds. Individuals who had never met Oliver, nor had known of her work were moved to tears by her death. I couldn’t help but question why. But I quickly came to realize that her poems offered something special in the world; that She had a remarkable way of connecting to the reader. In no way does she try to impress through her syntax. In other words, she has no intention of manipulating language to add unnecessary layers of complexity. There isn’t anything flamboyant or flowery about her work. It is humble, modest, colloquial, and quite frankly, simple. She very much defies the notion that poetry must be ‘fancy’ to be good, or perhaps, to have an impact on the reader.
In an interview with NPR, Oliver explained that simplicity was important to her — that “poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy.” She continued to express, “I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now, they sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem”. The way she articulates the disposition of nature doesn’t get lost in the translation of language. She has a very pure way of letting the reader feel what she feels. Though paradoxical, this simplicity of language which runs through her poems is the very thing that makes them so enduring, so penetrative to the soul. It is as if she is speaking to us, mind to mind — human, to human — an effortless, almost maternal connection that selflessly welcomes the reader into the poem’s arms, between the wrinkles of letters, to abide in its comfort, and dwell in its wisdom. Above all, Oliver touched people who didn’t particularly understand, could appreciate, or care about, other works of contemporary poetry. She made poems accessible. But accessibility, per se, isn’t a bad thing that degrades the status of the poet whatsoever. Instead, it is one out of the many examples of ‘flying low’ in the sphere of Oliver’s life and work, a theme that will be further explored in what follows. To fly low does not mean to degrade oneself or one’s work in the traditional sense, rather, it is to find meaning in the absence of excess. Or in Oliver’s words, not to ‘tap dance through’ artistic expression.
Everytime I read Wild Geese, I feel an overwhelming sense of comfort. It’s a little like the feeling of being enveloped in a thick blanket on a winter’s evening. It understands the human experience so profoundly. Oliver says that you “do not have to be good” or “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”. In a quick- paced, digitalised world where we uplift the productive, the people who do, there is little space to stop, to take a breath, to feel, and to simply exist. She reminds us that we should lean into ourselves, to do what we love. Oliver feels comfortable standing loosely on the margin of things — between the sky and the land, the trees and the rivers. She evocatively paints a picture of a great expanse of nature before the reader portraying, perhaps, the smallness, the insignificance of them whilst the “world goes on”, telling the reader that no matter what happiness or unhappiness they feel, the world will, nonetheless, continue as normal — that the sun will still shine, and the rain will still fall, and the wild geese will still fly home. Though shrill, abrasive, and harsh, the call of the wild geese is a sound that again, and again, situates the reader back in touch with their surroundings. That even as wide as this vista of the world is, one can still find a place of belonging. A home in this ‘family of things.’
Oliver’s poetry has had a significant impact in my everyday life. Visionary and wildly inspirational, I think of her work all the time. She offers a certain seriousness which is not somehow tied to religious orthodoxy, which, rather, conveys a gentle reminder for us to look with kinder, more alert eyes at the world around us, and to lean into our vulnerabilities — to stop and smell the roses, to live presently, to fly low. The poet once said that “attention is the beginning of devotion”. Her work very much influences and questions the reader’s gaze on the world — pushing them to look, and to look again; not to overlook the little things in life; to abide in these transcendent moments; to exist within them rather than prospect them from afar; to appreciate the world as an end within itself. In an era where social media defines our very way of life, Oliver’s poems are not only more relevant than ever, but more vital than ever. YouTube plays videos on an endless loop, Netflix advertises the next episode only five seconds into the credits, Instagram pulls the user into a rabbit hole of likes and comments, Pinterest force-feeds us pictures of who we wish to be instead of who we are, TikTok hypnotizes us with its kaleidoscope of perfectly customized content. Is this all not… too much? In a poem Watering the Stones, Oliver expresses her urge for us to refocus our attention on the meaningful and on the slow.
She has such a deep, direct love for the world that is eloquently reflected onto her poetry. To my surprise, communities on Instagram, YouTube, and most notably TikTok, are opening up a new conversation on the topic of ‘flying low.’ Everyday glimpses into slow lifestyles are captured in videos across the world. This, quiet meditative, trend is encouraging individuals to lean into the rhythm of their lives and take notice of the ordinary, the bland, the everyday, and transform it into something worth living for. However, this trend can be taken out of context and away from its intention. I often find myself being so caught up in capturing the beautiful things around me — trying to hold on to moments, so they don’t get lost in time — that I forget to simply exist within the moment. Maybe, it’s not a matter of romanticizing life, but a matter of not overlooking the little things. Sometimes, I forget that whilst capturing these fleeting moments (a sunset, the way the light reflects the river, the rain…) immortalize them in the form of a digital file, I only get to truly experience them once. Oliver reminds me that these moments are the very definition of transcendent, and as a result, shouldn’t be interfered with. Though I wish I had the mystical powers to stop time and gaze at a blissful, pink sunrise (or in this situation, whip out my phone and proceed to take a little too many photos and videos), I forget that the breeze will stop, and the waves will stop, and the sound of the birds will stop — that it would spoil the transcendence of nature within itself. Perhaps, simply existing in a pinpoint in time, free of other motives, is enough of a purpose within itself.
I think Oliver would agree with the notion of ‘flying low.’ After all, in her poem, The Summer Day, she directly addresses the reader — “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”