On Being with Krista Tippett: Mary Oliver – Listening to the World

On religion, spirituality:

Oliver: Well, I would define it now very differently from when I was a child. I was sent to Sunday school, as many kids are. And then I had trouble with the resurrection. So I would not join the church. But I was still probably more interested than many of the kids who did enter the church. It’s been one of the most important interests of my life and continues to be. And it doesn’t have to be Christianity. I’m very much taken with the poet Rumi, who is Muslim, a Sufi poet — and read him every day, and have no answers but have some suggestions. I know that a life is much richer with a spiritual part to it. And I also think nothing is more interesting. So I cling to it.

Liking motion:

Oliver: Well, as I say, I don’t like buildings. The only record I broke in school was truancy. I went to the woods a lot with books. Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as they came to me and then worked them into poems later. … I became the kind of person who did the walking and the scribbling but shared it if they wanted it. Yes. Tippett: And you also use this word — there’s this place where you’re talking about writing while walking, you know, listening deeply. And I love this, “listening convivially.”


Oliver: No. She was past that. Her daughters may have, but I never advertised myself as a poet. And there was that wonderful thing about the town. And that is, I was taken as somebody who worked like anybody else. And I’d go — there was one fellow who was the plumber. And we’d maybe meet in the hardware store in the morning. Tippett: You mean in Provincetown? Oliver: And he’d say, “Oh, Hi Mary. How’s your work going?” And I’d say, “Pretty good. How was yours?” And it was the same thing. There was no sense of eliteness or difference, and that was very nice.

Cancer as a silent hunter:

Oliver: Oh, yes there is. There are four poems. One is about the hunter in the woods that makes no sound. All the hunters. Tippett: It’s a little bit long, but do you want to read it? Oliver: Sure. Oh, where’d I put my glasses? There they are. Yeah. The fourth sign of the zodiac is, of course, cancer. Oh, that’s what I meant. “Why should I have been surprised? / Hunters walk the forest / without a sound. / The hunter, strapped to his rifle, / the fox on his feet of silk, / the serpent on his empire of muscles — / all move in a stillness, / hungry, careful, intent. / Just as the cancer / entered the forest of my body, / without a sound.” These four poems are about the cancer episode, shall we say? The cancer visit? Did you want me to go on to these others?

Short poems:

Oliver: It probably is an influence from Rumi, whose poems are — many of them are quite short. But if you can say it in a few lines, you’re just decorating for the rest of it. Unless you could — intent makes something more intense, but if you said what you want to say, you’re not going to make it more intense. You’re just going to repeat yourself. So I’ve got a poem that will start the next book. I think it goes like this: “Things take the time they take. Don’t / worry. / How many roads did St. Augustine follow / before he became St. Augustine?” Same kind of thing. What else is there to say?

“Owning” a poem, remembering it and speaking through it:

Tippett: So there’s a question that you pose in many different ways, overtly and implicitly, you know, “How shall I live?” In Long Life you wrote, “What does it mean that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift that I should bring to the world? What is the life that I should live?” Which really is a question of moral imagination. And it’s the ancient essential question. But I wonder how you think about how that question emerges and is addressed distinctively in poetry and through poetry. What does poetry do with a question like that, that other forms of language don’t? Oliver: I think I would disagree that other forms of language don’t. But poetry has a different kind of attraction. Tippett: Yeah. So what is that attraction in poetry? Oliver: I think it’s the way it’s written. It’s the fact that it has been communal for years and years and years, and we’ve missed it. But I do think poetry has enticements of sound that are different from literature. Literature certainly has it too, or some literature, the best literature. And it’s easier for people to remember. People are more apt to remember a poem and therefore feel they own it and can speak it to themselves as you might a prayer — than they can remember a chapter and quote it. That’s very important because then it belongs to you. You have it when you need it. Poetry is certainly closer to singing than prose. And singing is something that we all love to do or wish we could do. [laughs]

Simply wonderful.

5:00 pm on October 26, 2021