Tag Archives: Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver: My Mentor & Teacher

Mary Oliver, circa 1992
photo by Marv

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.

Grateful for My Unconscious


Freud, Father of the Unconscious

At 2:05 a.m., during the mid-nineties, my unconscious roused me awake with strange words, We travel on the dice of the mind.

 I’d been asleep for a couple of hours and in no mood to pay attention. I rolled over, only to be awakened again at 3:05; this time, the tone was more insistent.  I told myself to remember and went back to sleep. When I was again roused at 4:05, I felt like my unconscious was in chains, clanging for release. I muttered, all right…all right, slid into my slippers and went to my desk. At the computer, a part of me jumped onto the screen. Line after line, disjointed, my unconscious tumbled down the page. The words made no sense, yet they changed me.

I followed my unconscious for months, rose every morning very early to write lines about my work, my family, the state of the world. In the past, as a teen, I had written poetry as an expression of both gladness and angst, the need to put to paper all the emotions I could not hold. Those poems, like childhood, had been left behind. After six months of writing, I realized I needed to know more, to appreciate and shape what I was writing, to attend workshops with other aspiring writers.

I am grateful for luck, the good fortune and timing that lead me to two summers at the Bennington College Summer writing workshops and Mary Oliver as my first poetry teacher. Mary’s strait-to-the-point approach affirmed my voice, engendered courage. At our first meeting, she said, you have passion.

I am grateful to Mary for her willingness to put aside time to run beside me, to cull over my fledgling poems, to write in longhand in the margins, to mentor me. I was, at the time, a full time therapist, an advise-giver, with facile use of explanatory language. On an early poem, she wrote, see how you are using the slightly intellectual, stilted words and adjectives to do the work.

Mary affirmed the discipline of “showing up for the muse,” the belief that without the discipline of effort, the struggle to put  words on the page, to shape the words into a poem, to rework and revise, to write lyrically, until what is on the page seems right and true.

April is poetry month! I am grateful for poetry—the writing of, the reading of. I had many vicarious mentors—Stanley Kunitz, who addressed love and grief with such splendor and heart, whom I adopted, early on, as my “poetry grandfather.” There were others: Komunyakaa, Yevtushenko, Li-Young Lee, Gary Snider, Carolyn Forche, Joy Harjo, Naomi Shihab Nye and Gregory Orr, whose memoir, The Blessing, inspired me to leap to memoir.

I now have friends and colleagues who are devoted poets: Kathleen Aguero, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Meg Kearney, the Director of the Solstice Creative Writing Program, who, to this day, although I graduated as a nonfiction writer, reminds me over and over that, at heart, I am a poet. I am grateful, Meg.