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Death of a poet

A talented writer isn’t necessarily a writer to be heeded

Death of a poet

A friend texted, “Mary Oliver died.” I looked up at my husband, “Do we know a Mary Oliver?” Shrug. I typed back, cagily: “How old was she?” No clue forthcoming there: “83,” she replied. Then, after a quick Google search on this end: 

“Did you know her personally?” “My aunt took her in when she was a teenager and she lived with her in Provincetown for a few years. … My aunt has all of her books personally signed by her. … [Mary] ventured into lesbian life later on. She was sexually abused at home. … Tell me if you write something about her.” 

“I doubt I would write anything about her. I don’t know what I would say about a homosexual writer.” “She is also a good poet who opens the heart to God’s creation and its beauty. Isn’t that worth something?” “Yeah but what would I say in a Christian magazine? I’m asking a sincere question. I really don’t know what my angle would be.”

Jesus was a friend of sinners to save sinners from their sin and not to leave them as they were before He found them.

“Wasn’t Jesus a friend of sinners? Didn’t he appreciate the good things that they could do? ... their gifts of humor, carpentry, poetry, etc?”

“N----, really?”

“He was fully human and fully divine.”

Well, for one thing, no, I don’t think we find evidence in Scripture that Jesus “appreciated the good things that they could do.” And I think Jesus was a friend of sinners to save sinners from their sin and not to leave them as they were before He found them.

Besides, I was troubled. When churches go raving rainbow-and-alphabet soup, the murder weapon usually is not a strong theological argument: It's a winsome next-door neighbor, or favorite nature poet. Isn’t the way N---- is talking exactly the way they started to talk at Harvard just before Harvard went under, and then Yale before Yale went under, and then Princeton before it went under?

I spent the whole day reading Mary Oliver poems and watching her readings on YouTube. The writing was unadorned and beautiful and evoked white-washed Cape Cod cottages and cool salty-aired mornings, and I came across any number of phrases of which I thought, “Man, I wish I had written that.” 

But it didn’t go so well with N----. And I started second-guessing myself. Was she right that I should separate the poem from the poet? I wouldn’t not commend a Shakespeare sonnet just because the man may be consigned to blackest night for all we know, right? Miss Oliver does me the favor of making me stop and see and smell what I am normally too rushed to stop and see and smell, to my impoverishment. She notices that grasshopper jaws move side to side, not up and down. She ends one poem with this amazing challenge: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” (“The Summer Day”).

But Oliver also says things like: “Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers” (“Mysteries, Yes”). And in her most requested poem, “The Journey” (she must have groaned as much as Led Zeppelin being asked the thousandth time to play “Stairway to Heaven”), she says to shoo away the voices that tell you to mend your life, and listen to the one that says to save yourself—but counsels it so prettily that I am almost in her pocket!

I am sensitive to the charge, first sneered by H.L. Mencken, that a Puritan is a person who’s afraid that someone, somewhere, might be enjoying himself. I don’t want to be that guy. And it’s hard to hate a poet who writes, “I was a bride married to amazement.”

But a poet is not a plumber. A poet is a prophet and a teacher. God says those whose gift is speaking will be judged the more severely. The road “soft underfoot” that leads to hell is just as much to fear as is the one that looks all dark and potholed. All of which is why I don’t think I can write a column on this poet, my dear N----. I hope you understand.


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  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Sun, 02/17/2019 05:56 am

    It would seem we all have influence and those who would follow Jesus must use their influence to guide people toward a life that puts God and others first.  If we don't gather with Him we scatter.  To encourage sin is to damage the spiritual lives of others even if we do it with beautiful, well connected words.  "It is not love to tell someone they may safely do what God has said must not be done."  We must be very careful what behaviors, and belief systems we endorse. Thank you for gently standing firm.    

  • RMF
    Posted: Fri, 02/22/2019 11:42 am

    Nicely done, thank you.

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Sun, 02/24/2019 07:11 am

    The writers of the biblical texts did not demonstrate the same kind of hesitatation when citing truth from poets with whom they disagreed. Paul quotes Epimenides on Zeus: “For in him we live and move and have our being,” and ascribes these truths to his own God rather than the head of the Greek pantheon. Proverbs cites the words of pagan foreigners Agur and Lemuel, and directly rips off the work of the Egyptian sage Amenemope. Job himself is apparently an Edomite, not an Israelite. Ps 29 appears to be a Ugaritic hymn to Baal with the divine name pencilled in over the Canaanite storm deity’s. Abram is blessed by Melchizedek in the name of El-Elyon, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, and he receives it as a blessing from YHWH. After reading your column, one is left wondering how much handwringing over their perceived flaws you would consider appropriate before acknowledging their merits and truthfulness.


  • solly
    Posted: Sun, 02/24/2019 08:51 am

    Thank you! You say, "God says those whose gift is speaking will be judged more severely".  However, James 3:1 is referring to those with the gift of teaching, not speaking, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." A poet can be a teacher, but I don't think it's in the definition.

  • AMYB
    Posted: Sun, 02/24/2019 06:19 pm

    I am disappointed by this column, and I am a long-time, avid reader of Andrea Seu Peterson. It seems disingenuous at best and downright disrespectful at worst. Snark is not becoming, and this column was unnecessary. 

  • JohnCW
    Posted: Mon, 02/25/2019 10:02 am

    I don't seen any snark here at all. Not sure what you are seeing or reading into it. 

  • Koni in WA
    Posted: Mon, 02/25/2019 09:15 pm

    I'm saddened by the direction to which the comments have turned - I believed many missed the point,  I detected no "snark" here, but a genuine struggle on how to proceed in giving accolades in a christian  magazine to to someone who created beauty - but lived a life seemingly devoid of true meaning.  It's an issue I've been wrestling with lately as a teacher/scriptwiter as I attempt to address how the church is starting to play fast and loose with holiness as it attempts to exist in a world that is increasingly pointing fingers and accusing it of not being fair and inclusive - many times to the detriment of said holiness.

    Andree acknowledged that the poet wrote with great skill and beauty. But she also, rightly, reminded us that we can be drawn away by the beautiful as well as the obvious ugliness of life - if it doesn't lead to God.

    Saying that the biblical authors "ripped off" other writers of their day didn't go quite far enough in the analysis.  The authors did use those quotes - but as the author of Hebrews did they used already established quotes and sayings about others and then pointd up how Our God  is far greater and more deserving of the acolade.

    In college my Hebrew professor once told me that Shaddai was a pagan diety and that the name meant "many breasted one" and stood for a god who was a provider.  The believers in the true God came along and added "El" to the title which signified that "No, our God is the God who is the great provider".  I see no problem with borrowing a beautiful quote that accurately reflects an aspect of our awesome God and using it to refer to the One who really deserves the praise that lives in the work.

    Finally, I would just like to point out that anyone who creates a written work to be consumed by the masses is a teacher whether they want to be or not.  You have a viewpoint, belief, or agenda that you are wanting to share with other to hopefully inspire them to follow the road that you are on.  And I believe that is really what Andree was getting at in her article.

  • BB
    Posted: Sun, 03/03/2019 03:23 pm

    Thanks for this Koni!   

  • DS
    Posted: Mon, 02/25/2019 03:41 pm

    Well, I know more about this Mary Oliver now than I ever have. Needless to say, I didn't know she existed until now, so your writing this article is like writing a the collumn to me. I know 100% more than I use to about her.

  • MamaC
    Posted: Tue, 02/26/2019 11:53 am

    God gives gifts. Some gifts are well-chosen words and other artistic forms of expression. And He gives those regardless of our acknowledgement of Him as the Source or of our gratitude to Him for the gifts He has given. As in the narrative about the ten lepers who were healed, only one of the healed lepers gave thanks to Jesus for his healing, but all of them were just as healthy (physically) as the one who came back. We can read this story and praise God for the healing of all ten lepers, even if they did not. We can appreciate the gifts of words that God gives to some and thank Him for the beauty even if the author never realizes or acknowledges the Source of their talent.

  • MamaC
    Posted: Tue, 02/26/2019 11:58 am

    And obviously we must use discernment to know whether any advice is godly advice or not, but we can still appreciate and applaud beauty wherever we find it.