The two summers I spent in Mary Oliver’s poetry writing workshop changed my life. A practicing psychotherapist for twenty-five years, lines of poetry had arrived in the middle of the night. At lunch with a friend one day, as I mused about the mystical quality of how lines arrive each morning, she asked how the revision process was going. “Revision,” I laughed, “I’m clueless.” Poetry had seemed like a gift from the muse, not to be tampered with.
Tampering with grit and specificity is what Mary Oliver was all about. That first morning in July 1990, blond, lean, dressed in a yellow shirt, Mary was soft-spoken bordering on shy yet directive and clear about why we were there and what was to come. She said, “I teach what works for me.” We were there to learn language, technique, and process.
Session 1— a few highlights
- “Sound selection is unconscious. The sense of the poem is carried by sound,” she began.
- “You work with the equipment you get inside you.”
- “The daylight part of the mind edits.”
- “Any word is a help or a hindrance.”
- “There is no such thing as a neutral sound.”
- “Without this type of artistry, the use of sound, you don’t have a poem.”
- “When art is right, the more bearable it is.”
I can attest to the truth of Mary’s words. I come from a line of music makers. My children are music makers as am I. Under Mary’s tutelage, I sung words to myself, tapped out rhythms, played with line breaks, varied stanzas, wrote multiple drafts of poems and rarely published. The creativity, the hope of artistry, the effort to shape the words and use the tools Mary gave me powered my effort and brought balance to my life.
After I retired from my practice, I shifted into the longer form of personal essay and memoir. The musicality of words, what I had learned about enjambment, the concept of the turning of the line, the difference between a slim poem such as Mary wrote or a long line, such as Whitman, whom she blessed for speaking to her, followed me.
In my Solstice MFA critical thesis, titled, Poetic Language and Musicality in Essays of E.B. White and Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders, I expanded on Mary’s specificity. I explored symbolism as well as elements of rhythm as depicted by beat, and melody as demonstrated by sound and physiological harmony in relationship to the particulars of imagery which evoke sight, sounds, tastes, smell and touch.
On the sad occasion of Mary’s death, I recall our private feedback meeting at Bennington in 1991. She affirmed my passion and work ethic as she offered, “Send me a few poems from time to time. I’ll run alongside you, to help lift your kite into the air.”
I am grateful for Mary’s generosity, respect and poetic commentary, which enabled me to express and trust the “equipment” I have inside. Like so many who mourn her today, I turn to her vast work of artistry, her ability to create “bearable art” and rejoice for her legacy.