The Monaghan Ballroom in the Alumni Memorial Union at Marquette University was packed and crackling with a warm, invigorating energy when we walked in Monday night. Jess and I found a couple seats in the middle back of the room and squeezed in. I had a nice clear view of the podium where in just a few minutes, Mary Oliver would be standing as she received an Honorary Degree from Marquette University.
Such a tiny woman. Those were my first thoughts as Mary Oliver, in her cap and gown walked down the aisle towards the front of the room She might be in her late 70’s and she might seem slight and frail.
But looks can deceive…
This woman, this Pulitzer Prize winning poet is a radiating orb of energy and light.
When Mary stepped to the podium after receiving her degree, she adjusted her collar and said, “My don’t I look attractive!”
There’s a twinkle of mischief and delight in her eye you can see even from the back of the room. She emanates this childlike sense of wonder. You can see it in her bubbling beneath the surface and you can feel it as it explodes out into the world touching us through her poetry.
To hear her – Mary Oliver – reading her words out loud as you sit drinking it in and allowing it to wash over you is indescribable. It is to be fed – as though you were starved for food, it is to be spoiled, lavished and loved all at the same time. It is traveling down a well-worn path that leads you home. You’ve been down it many times before but this time, this one incredible time, you notice things about that path you had never noticed previously. And it delights you to no end. It is a gift.
That is what it is to hear Mary Oliver read her poems to you.
She sees the earth in its wholeness, its minutia, its truth in such detail. She sees what so many of us too often overlook. She connects us to the world around us and makes it more accessible to those who might not have a chance to see it up close for themselves.
I needed to think for a few days – how I could describe what seeing, hearing and meeting Mary Oliver was like. I’m still trying to process the fact that my husband and I met Mary Oliver and that we got to hear her read her poetry to us. She read mainly from her new book of poetry, “A Thousand Mornings” and also from her other collections. She read some of her more popular, beloved poems, “Wild Geese”, “The Journey” and “When Death Comes” and she treated us to several unpublished poems that will be in her next book.
She read to us for almost an hour. She said someone once asked her why some of her poems are long and skinny. She said she never responded but tonight she was going to tell us. She used to work for a printer long ago ($2/hour) – as a collator when times were tough and money was scarce. She said she didn’t have much money for paper and where she worked, there were these long strips of paper left over from cuttings that they usually threw out. She asked if she could take them home and use them. So that is what she used to write her poetry and that is why some of her poems are long and narrow.
And then one of the temples on her glasses fell off and she had to read the rest of the time holding her glasses to her face, but she didn’t complain. She simply said, “Oh! My glasses broke,” and kept on reading.
Throughout her reading the audience was silent. I think it is because we were hanging on every word, devouring with our ears and our souls the gift of the moment – this rare chance to listen to her. Many of us closed our eyes as she read to us, nodding and smiling all the while. There were no walls. No separation of gender, class, what-have-you. We were all joined together – strangers yes – but united in that moment by our admiration for Mary Oliver.
Then, after a short Q&A, we waited in line to have her sign our books. It was a long wait but no one seemed to mind. People were friendly and we chatted with those around us. It actually went by in a blur. Finally, it was our turn to step up to the table to have her sign our books. She smiled at us and it was warm and friendly smile that made you feel like you could sit right down and enjoy a cup of tea together. All I could say was hello and thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And also, safe travels home.
She smiled and said, “Yes, tomorrow I head home.”
And that was that.
And it was perfect.
**Thank you to Marquette University for hosting such a wonderful event and giving us a chance to meet Mary Oliver. What a fantastic opportunity. Thank you.
*Marquette University Students recite “What I Have Learned So Far” by Mary Oliver:
WHAT I HAVE LEARNED SO FAR
Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.