Mary Oliver was by my bedside when she died.
Two months earlier — though she hailed from my home state, Ohio — I wouldn’t have even recognized her name. Her short poetry book for beginners, Rules for the Dance, has been ground zero for the late inbreaking of poetry into my life. Mary rebuked me for reading poetry like a theology book — like any good seminarian would — and taught me to slow down and listen more. She started humming the music of poetry for me. She said, “Every poem is music — a determined, persuasive, reliable, enthusiastic, and crafted music.”
She died this January 17, but I can still hear her humming while I read. Mary offered us much more than music. Her poems were filled with the depth and beauty of creation, the preciousness of life, even the bigness of God. In her 1992 poem “When Death Comes,” she wrote,
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Twenty-six years later, the world lost this wife of wonder, but not before she showed us something of God in all that he has made — not before she taught some of us to dance.
What Mary Didn’t Know
The heartbreaking moment in meeting Mary is seeing just how much she saw without really seeing (2 Corinthians 4:4). At times, her lyrics have made me wonder whether anyone has perceived more of God’s eternal power and divine nature in the things he had made without receiving his Son (Romans 1:20).
As she watched baby redbirds hatch and chirp for food, she marveled,
And just like that, like a simple
neighborhood event, a miracle is
taking place. (“This Morning”)
She saw the universe through the wide eyes of her dogs:
A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know
almost nothing. (“Her Grave”)
She had experienced the inevitable mingling of sorrow and joy:
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body. (“We Shake with Joy”)
While she sat beside a river named Clarion, she wondered,
Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond all measure. (“At the River Clarion”)
You can begin to feel just how close and far she was to reality. In another poem, she prays,
Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with
the fragrance of the fields and the
freshness of the oceans which you have
made, and help me to hear and to hold
in all dearness those exacting and wonderful
words of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying:
Follow me. (“Six Recognitions of the Lord”)
Oh, to live in God’s world with more of that Spirit, that awe, that submission.
Those last seven beautiful lines land tragically, however, because Mary seemed to have rejected at least some of the exacting words of Jesus. Apart from the pantheism and anti-exclusivism that peek out of so many of her stanzas, we know she fell in love and lived with a lesbian partner for forty years. Her manifest familiarity with God makes her distance from faithful Christianity a profound tragedy.
Why We Prefer Prose
I love Mary, however, for teaching me how to dance. Learning to read and write poetry prepares us to read the Bible better — not just the poetry in the Bible, but all of the Bible. That means for however far Mary was from the truth of the real Jesus, she taught me how to see more of him in the Scriptures.
If I had to summarize my hurdle with poetry for the first three decades of my life, it was that I immediately tried to turn every line or stanza into an immediate rationale payoff: What does this mean? The question is important, but poems often require a longer and less direct path to the answer. Leland Ryken says, “The chief obstacles that keep people from poetry are 1) laziness in learning how to read and understand poetry and 2) determining that poetry is inaccessible without giving it a try.” Guilty on both accounts.
Poetry frustrated me because it was inefficient and ambiguous. Prose could have said this so much faster and clearer. But not necessarily better. “Poetry appeals to the whole person in a way that prose does not,” Tremper Longman writes. “It stimulates our imaginations, arouses our emotions, feeds our intellects, and addresses our wills” (How to Read the Psalms, 91).
But a poem cannot appeal to the whole person if we read it like we skim a newsfeed. We have to slow down — an increasingly impossible feat in our day — and look around. What do I see? What do I hear? What do I smell, and taste, and feel as I read? Poetry is meant to make us feel something that comes less natural to prose. Poetry requires more patience and imagination — and time. It teaches us to read with more than our minds, the kind of heart-awake reading God expects when we come to his word (Psalm 119:10, 97; Matthew 15:8).
Poems Breathed by God
Enjoying poetry makes us better readers, period. But Christians, of all people, should appreciate poetry even more — because our God writes so much poetry. Roughly a third of your Bible is poetry. John Piper writes,
God can raise the dead by any means he pleases. He can waken dull hearts to the reality of his beauty any way he desires. And one of the ways he pleases to do it is by inspiring his spokesmen to write poetry. (“God Filled Your Bible with Poems”)
Hebrew poetry is not marked by meter or rhyme like the English poetry many of us are used to, but it still rewards slower, more imaginative reading.
Longman identifies the two most common characteristics of poetry in Scripture: parallelism and imagery (94). Because neither depends on meter or rhyme, their meaning comes through just as effectively and powerfully in our English translations of the Bible. Parallelism simply means two lines share some kind of intentional repetition. It may be obvious or subtle, but the writer has repeated something to emphasize or elaborate on his point. When we notice a repeated word, or phrase, or sentence construction, we should ask, What did he repeat, and why?
Imagery is the second major characteristic of Hebrew poetry, broken down into two familiar categories: similes and metaphors. Similes are introduced explicitly with “like” or “as.” Metaphors are implicit, and therefore often more potent. Again, Longman says,
Images, particularly metaphors, help to communicate the fact that God is so great and powerful and mighty that he can’t be exhaustively described. Metaphor may be accurate, but is less precise than literal language. Metaphor preserves the mystery of God’s nature and being, while communicating to us about him and his love for us. (121)
Images say things that cannot be said, at least not well. Good poems listen to the images, and good readers know how to listen to good poems. And the only God-breathed Book we have is filled with inspired, living, and active poetry.
Your One Wild and Precious Life
In one of her most famous poems, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver writes,
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Has a grasshopper ever reminded you of the gravity and brevity of your existence? Have you forgotten how to kneel down and pay attention? What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Slow down with me, and learn how to dance with God. And let’s pray that what we learn from poetry, from the images, from the birds and fields and oceans, will open our eyes even wider to the one we see in his word.