In “Journey of the Magi” in Ariel (1927), T. S. Eliot’s first stanza traces the struggles and uncertainties of the magi who suffer through cold nights and sleeplessness all the while worrying that “This was all folly.” It’s a legitimate concern: How did they know where the star would lead, whether their sacrifices would ultimately be worth their efforts?
The poem’s second stanza, though, offers a moment of respite when nature finally seems to aid rather than interfere with the travelers: they encounter “a temperate valley, / Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; / With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, / And three trees on the low sky, / And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.” Eliot and Mary Oliver share in their understanding that these variances of nature, nature’s blessings and curses, are directly tied in with the challenges and uncertainties of a spiritual journey: there is hope, a promise of renewal if only we align our will to God’s. And in this way, the “galled, sore-footed” camels can become young again, transformed into the “old white horse [that] galloped away in the meadow.”
Mary Oliver likely read Eliot. It’s hard to imagine she didn’t (In a 2011 interview with Oprah Magazine, she confesses to loving Wendell Berry, another writer with a deeply Christian spirituality). But we’d never know Eliot’s influence on her by her style — intentionally direct and accessible in the most un-Eliotean way. In “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” she admits with characteristic directness, “I know a lot of fancy words. / I tear them from my heart and my tongue. / Then I pray.” And she writes in “That Little Beast,” “Sometimes I want to use small words / and make them important” even as her poems strive to move in different directions. Yet she accepts the wildness of these poems as things beyond her control, as she accepts God’s mysteries as equally uncontrollable or incomprehensible. If poems, her own poems, are too wild to bind, how much more impossible is it to wrangle God?
She certainly tries to know him. Though she professed no one faith, her poems yearn for God, even sometimes calling him by name or a variety of names. Her works are a sort of spiritual reading, and fruitful and rich in their spiritual contemplations. When she does seem to know God, she knows him teleologically — she sees him as the purpose-giver to every created thing. She understands that all nature, from the stone to the stream to the bird, accomplishes its mission to be as well as it can, and in this way serve God best.
Consider the kingfisher from “Stebbins Gulch” whose “only industry // is to descend / and to be beautiful / while it does so; / as for purpose // there is none, / it is simply / one of those gorgeous things / that was made // to do what it does perfectly.” Oliver’s over-enjambed lines emphasize the steady insistence the bird feels at completing its teleological mission: being beautiful. And through this mission of beauty, it accomplishes a religious feat of “ last[ing], / as almost nothing does, / almost forever.” The poem ends here, at a paradoxically momentary heaven during which beauty lasts — and it lasts because the creature fulfills its mission of doing what it was meant to do. Animals in these poems often have greater insights into the mind of God than humans — and in her unspoken humility, Oliver wonders whether that’s because they do not try to know God as we do, striving intellectually toward him who created reason itself.
Devotions (2017) is Oliver’s final collection, curated and organized by the poet herself in the years before her death, and in it are many moments that show the varied faces and voices of God. On the whole, Oliver (in a Romantic mode) argues that God, if he can be known at all, must be known only in snatches, in brief glimpses and shapes. And in this way, Oliver helps readers come to know God’s nearly incomprehensible wideness — even through her often-clipped poems that speak to God’s largeness through her own smallness.
The poet herself has alluded to the preoccupation with the divine. In the interview with Oprah, Oliver explains, “I’ve written before that God has ‘so many names.’ […] It’s a mystery, and mysteries don’t compromise themselves—we’re never gonna know.” She opens Devotions with “I Wake Close to Morning,” in which the speaker similarly asks, “Why do people keep asking to see / God’s identity papers / when the darkness opening into morning / is more than enough?” The enjambment is powerful: reducing God to what can be seen commonizes the divine into the quotidian, turning the mystery of the unseen God into an unpapered immigrant whose identity relies on something as earthly (as non-divine) as governmental identification.
Instead, she offers a spirituality of diversity, an open faith that, while definitely Christian, is hardly fastidious: in “Whistling Swans,” she asks, “Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look / up into that blue space? / Take your choice, prayers fly from all directions. / And don’t worry what language you use, God no doubt understands them all.”
In an echo of this poem, she lists a catalogue of possible animal prayers in “I Happened To Be Standing,” confessing in its first lines, “I don’t know where prayers go / or what they do.” But she wonders nevertheless whether “cats pray while they sleep”: “Does the opossum pray as it / crosses the street? / The sunflowers? The old black oak / growing older every year?” She responds to these possible prayers with humility, not aiming to assure herself of any truth. She only wants to listen to the act of prayer as a divine mystery: “I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be / if it isn’t a prayer?” The enjambment again emphasizes a mystery: what could this be? And even as she answers this question with the rest of the line, she does so conditionally, ultimately ending on a question mark. She will not box the wren in certainty or in language, or to borrow again from a different Eliot poem, she will not “fix [him] in a formulated phrase” with her concrete words: “So I just listened, my pen in the air.” And in doing so, she allows him to reside in that deeply spiritual world of mystery.
What good can come from reading a poet with such a fluid understanding of the creator? Are these uncertainties threats to the certainty of Catholicism, rooted as it is on dogmas and theological truths? Or, to be blunt, is there anything actually religious in her work?
She believes there is. In the Oprah interview, she not only claims to “think about the spiritual a great deal,” she believes her poems are a form of worship, explaining, “I like to think of myself as a praise poet.”
If this self-profession is (understandably) unconvincing, I’d like to offer something more convincing: she defends a Catholic understanding of mystery. Here theology is not a rigid system of dogmas but one that accepts mystery as “A divinely revealed truth […] whose inner essence cannot be fully understood by the finite mind. The incomprehensibility of revealed mysteries derives from the fact that they are manifestations of God, who is infinite and therefore beyond the complete grasp of a created intellect.”
Or, poetically, “I have refused to live / locked in the orderly house of / reasons and proofs,” she says in the first lines of “The World I Live In.” Instead, she prefers to “live in and believe in” a world “wider than that” in which uncertainty resides: “And anyway,” she asks, “what’s wrong with Maybe?” She understands God through the idea of creatures living out their telos and she praises God the creator through poems that celebrate these lives well lived.
In her own life, she aimed to bring God to others through her love. When asked the question from her most cited poem (a quote, I admit, I have hanging on the back wall of my English classroom — sentimental, sure, but so good!), “What do you think you have done with your one wild and precious life?” she responds humorously, “I used up a lot of pencils.” After pausing to laugh, though, her answer takes on a sober and touching seriousness: “What I have done is learn to love and learn to be loved. That didn’t come easy. And I learned to consider my life an amazing gift.”
Again, her philosophies manifest themselves most clearly in her poetry: In “Passing the Unworked Field,” a poem about fragility that itself looks like a thin stem nearly collapsing on itself, she writes, “look / how [Queen Anne’s lace] / stands straight on its / thin stems how it / scrubs it white faces / with the / rags of the sun how it / makes all the / loveliness / it can.” Replacing the expected question mark with a period at the end of this poem insists that living well, even with only the “rags of the sun” to cleanse oneself, is an act of teleological success, a life that results in the accomplished goal: creating a beautiful, lovelier world. In sharing this beauty with others, the flower (and the poet) live a life of love made real.
She also believes in something adjacent to Dostoyevsky’s comment (also on classroom walls, though not on my own) that beauty will save the world. Rather than universalize the statement as Dostoyevsky does, Oliver takes a more focused approach, humbly limiting the scope of change to the individual: in “Swan,” she asks at the poem’s powerful conclusion, “did you see [the swan], finally, just under the clouds— / a white cross streaming across the sky […] / And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything? / And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for? / And have you changed your life”? Or in “North Country,” You listen [to the singing thrush] and you know / you could live a better life than you do, be / softer, kinder/ And maybe this year you will / be able to do it.”
Oliver aims for the Catholic concept of living life with purpose — accepting the varieties of mystery, and finding God through a purposeful, love-centric life. To quote Eliot from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, “To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.” I think Oliver would agree — and I think she would use her own other-oriented life to prove it.