Before most of the speakers began reading Mary Oliver’s poetry at Finn House on Feb. 12, they shared an anecdote describing what they were doing the day she died. Her poetry uses intense natural description. She focused on whatever became apparent to her: a flower, a fish in a stream, leaves on a tree or the mushrooms that dot the forest floor.
The Department of English hosted a Mary Oliver poetry reading at Finn House to honor the poet’s life after news of her passing on Jan. 17. Anyone was welcome to bring in her poetry and read it to an audience of professors, staff and students. There was a sense of sorrow in the air. Once poetry was read, the reading turned into a celebration of Oliver’s life.
Mary Oliver was born in Maple Heights, Ohio in 1935 — only a few hours away from Kenyon’s campus. In a rare interview with podcast journalist Krista Tipett, Oliver spoke of her childhood: “It was a very dark and broken house that I came from,” she said. In order to escape, she would take long walks and immerse herself in Ohio’s natural wilderness.
At 13, she began writing poetry. On her solitary walks, she saw something heavenly in nature and became enamored with the cycles of life and death which seemed endless in those woods. With all this in mind, she would put her ideas to the page as she spent more and more time outside with a notepad. “My work is loving the world,” she claimed.
Over 15 students, professors and staff members read poetry during the hour. The first poem read was “Wild Geese,” which was originally written on the back of a painting of wild geese.
Oliver’s poetry, like that of Wordsworth and others, tries to find some respite from human interaction through nature. Most of all, she showed her readers that just about anything could evoke astonishment.
In her poem, “Mysteries, Yes,” Oliver writes, “Truly we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.” She understood that the objective of her poetry was to describe the indescribable, and she realized that she could only do this through finding simple things in nature and fleshing them out in contemplative verse. From simplicity, she was able to evoke the same sensations of existential problems that baffled people everyday.
Tyler Raso ’19, who attended the reading, said that Oliver was a poet who gave him permission to do new things. “Mary Oliver feels like family,” he said. “I always feel like I’m reading something from somebody that really wants to tell me something. Who loves me so much that they thought of me when they wrote that.”