Two great poets of nature

I began this year with high hopes of posting on this blog often, but life got in the way. Not that there hasn’t been a lot going on in the area of art and nature, it’s almost too much to keep up with.

As the year draws to a close, I want to remember two great poets of nature who passed away recently.

Mary OliverMary Oliver (1935–2019) inspired multiple generations with her keen observations of nature and the human spirit. She didn’t just write about nature, she lived it, often writing outdoors while walking through the woods.

In an appreciation in The New Yorker, Rachel Syme writes: “Oliver lived a profoundly simple life: she went on long walks through the woods and along the shoreline nearly every day, foraging for both greens and poetic material.”

She wrote of nature not only to celebrate its unique wonder, but to plumb the depths of the human condition, to understand life itself, as in this poem, “I Go Down to the Shore.”

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do?
And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Here she reads one of her most famous poems, “The Summer Day”:

And here is a video of Mary Oliver reading another of her well-known poems “The Wild Geese”

Mary Oliver gave few interviews, but this 2015 interview from the radio program On Being provides a glimpse into her creative mind. She says that creativity is important, but so is discipline, the act of sitting down regularly to work. She says, “I think we’re creative all day long. And we have to have an appointment to have that work out on the page. Because the creative part of us gets tired of waiting or just gets tired.”

Listen or read the entire interview here. You can read more about her life and work at the Poetry Foundation.

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W.S. MerwinW.S. Merwin (1927-2019) was another acclaimed poet who passed away this year, who also wrote and cared about nature. He lived his final years in Hawaii, where he and his wife purchased land on an old pineapple plantation where the soil was depleted by chemicals and erosion. Together they planted trees and slowly restored the land into what is now The Merwin Conservancy, 19 acres of lush palm forest preserved as an arts and ecology center.

In his poem “October” he describes the magic of nature in autumn:

 What peace! To the sharp black poplar comes
a bird and sings. A cloud frays
colorless, and a single butterfly,
a light, sinks in the light…

Once asked about the role of the poet in today’s society, he said,

“We keep expressing our anger and our love, and we hope, hopelessly perhaps, that it will have some effect. But I certainly have moved beyond the despair, or the searing, dumb vision that I felt after writing The Lice; one can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.”

Here he is giving a talk about connections, between poetry and modern life, between humans and the earth we live on:

You can read more about Merwin’s life and work at the Poetry Foundation.

Despite the loss of these two great writers, poetry is still very much alive today, with countless poets pursuing their art. Here is a great online compilation of poems inspired by nature, many by contemporary poets. If I continue this blog in the future, I hope to highlight more of them.

Thanks for reading!

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