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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?”
“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.