Mary Oliver & Poetry Power

On January 17, 2019, Mary Oliver died.

She was one of my favorite poets and her writing has changed me and my work. The first time I heard her words was at a Unitarian Universalist church in the late 1990s. I’m not sure if it was Wild Geese or In Blackwater Woods or what it was, but it took my breath away. How could someone so clearly and succinctly say what I didn’t even know I wanted to say? She taught me things that I thought I knew, but didn’t until I heard her poem. Since then, I’m reminded over and over that she saw and expressed what really matters in this world. Mary Oliver got to the essence of things.

Two of her poems, Three Things to Remember and Instructions for Living a Life, have particularly impacted my creative work and teaching. Three Things is in the piece of art above. I love it not only for its mention of dancing but for its reminder that rules are often self-imposed. As a first born, I can get attached to following them and getting others to follow them, too. More and more though, I know that “there are fewer rules than you think” (as my friend and teacher, Mary Linn Bergstrom says).

What is your relationship to rules? Are you a follower? Does “doing it right” matter to you? Or does “doing it right” get you stuck? Or both? Are you a rebel? Are you someone who wants to know what the rules are just so you know what you are not going to do? When do you want to follow rules and when do you think they get in the way?

This is her poem, Instructions for Living a Life:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

And this is the piece of art I made based on her poem.

I made this piece at one of my own workshops on creativity called Living Life As An Artist. Ironically, it is the first piece of art I ever sold. Think of that: Mary Oliver made me a professional artist.

What do you think of her instructions? Do you follow them? Do you follow them in only some situations? Is there one you do more than the others?

Since her death, I’ve reconnected to Mary Oliver’s work and how it’s impacted me. I’ve also been introduced to poems I either had forgotten or didn’t know. If you have a favorite Mary Oliver poem, will you please share it? I may work them into class somehow or share them in some way or make art with them or … something.

Poetry gives us a new look at things we might not have noticed before — including parts of ourselves. I’d love to hear how poetry, Mary Oliver’s and others’, has changed how you see things, how you see yourself, or how you live. Please leave a comment below to share your favorite poem and your experience of poetry power.

Here’s to following instructions and breaking rules.

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