The Poetry Of Mary Oliver In Unitarian Universalist Liturgy

[This was originally a paper I wrote for my doctoral program in 2008. – Victoria Weinstein]

There’s Something About Mary: The Poetry Of Mary Oliver Among Unitarian Universalists

There are three poems by Mary Oliver in the most recent Unitarian Universalist hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition.  To put her prominence in context, there are six readings in the hymnal by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one by Henry David Thoreau, seven by Rabindranath Tagore, and eleven from the Book of Isaiah. She is therefore not overly-represented in the hymn book, but is unquestionably the poet of choice in Unitarian Universalist congregations all over the country and was chosen to give the prestigious Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2007. If any secular literary source can be said to have achieved the status of “sacred scripture” within a religious movement, it is safe to say this of Mary Oliver’s poetry among the Unitarian Universalists.

As a woman named Marcia wrote recently on a blog posting asking Unitarian Universalists to comment about the prevalence of Mary Oliver poetry in their worship services, “All I know is that when people ask me if we read from the bible during worship services, i say ‘Yes, but not as often as we read mary oliver.’[1]  On the same post a woman named Terri comments, “The very first UU service I attended featured a Mary Oliver poem…and the very first UU small group session I attended on Prayer used her poem “Morning Poem”[2]

Unitarian Universlist minister Judy Welles writes,

I use Mary Oliver a LOT. . . I love the simplicity of her poetry; I respect the art of saying something very rich and nuanced with just a very few words. She is a MASTER at that. And she loves life so much. And she is so grateful. She takes great pleasure in simple things, notices things to be grateful for that most of us would miss. To put it simply: she knocks my socks off.[3]

 

So what is this about? What about Mary Oliver’s poetry speaks so powerfully to members of this small religious movement? I have two key theories, one positive and one more cynical, that I want to explore more fully in this paper:

  1. Oliver writes poetry that is imbued with theology that is particularly resonant with the Transcendentalist, neo-pagan and ambiguously Theistic strands of Unitarian Universalism (I use the term “ambiguously Theistic” to refer to those who do not identify as traditional Theists, but who may be agnostic with a strong mystical bent, or atheistic with a sense of immanent divinity that, for personal reasons, they refuse to name as God). Oliver’s talent for capturing theophany and immanence in a few verses or images is breathtaking. She is the Muse of choice for many who have trouble articulating the holiness in everyday things and events, but who strongly feel its presence.
  2. Oliver writes poetry that is almost entirely interior; preoccupied with private thoughts, feelings and reactions to her immediate natural surroundings. It is the rare poem that takes Oliver into an urban or even suburban setting or finds her among a group of other human beings. In her poetic persona, she prefers the company of her dog, irises, otters or grasshoppers to that of people (save her beloved partner Molly Malone Cook who appears unnamed in many of her poems).  “Oliver worship” within Unitarian Universalism in the current era may represent, therefore, a holding onto rampant individualism and self-absorption that is currently being challenged by 21st century proponents of a far stronger community ethos in the denomination.

Speaking as an individual, I am a sincere fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Speaking as a minister and liturgist, I believe that her prevalence in Unitarian Universalist worship is a mixed blessing, and that her poetry should be more intentionally balanced with other poetic voices; especially those that lift up the importance of seeking transcendence truths in community.

 

The first reading by Mary Oliver that appears in Singing the Living Tradition is her poem “Wild Geese,” (from Dream Work, 1986).  It is reprinted in its entirety but made into a responsive reading, as the italics will indicate:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Imagine the reaction of the newcomer to Unitarian Universalist worship hearing a minister or liturgist intone that first line, “You do not have to be good.”

You do not have to be good!?? What kind of religion is this, anyway?  Read in a private context, I find this poem to be a beautiful statement of spiritual freedom, rejection of the efficacy of religious guilt to effect healing and wholeness (“you do not have to walk on your knees …repenting”) and a celebration of the interdependence of all life and each person’s special place in it.  Read in a corporate context, however, this poem makes me cringe.  Phrases like, “You do not have to be good” and “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” – so hospitable to the individual reader’s soul, sound to my ear very weak and permissive theology when read responsively in a worship setting.  Do worshipers hear these words differently in the privacy of home versus the public space of the religious meetinghouse?  Are preachers being entirely responsible when they use them and then do not exegete them somewhere in the service? Or do worshipers have an instinctive understanding that poetry within the context of worship is not, in fact, literally sacred scripture but one possible illumination among many of the preacher’s message and the community’s values?

One Unitarian Universalist wrote, “[Oliver’s] poem ‘Wild Geese’ is sort of like a creed to me (and I share this in common with a minister friend of mine, who also committed the poem to heart).[4]  Given that Unitarian Universalists reject creeds, such a comment is surprisingly fervent. Another active Unitarian Universalist gave the poem even higher prominence in her spiritual life, writing,

I love Mary Oliver because her poems “West Wind #2,” “Wild Geese,” and “The Journey” saved my life–literally. They gave me the strength and courage to do some hard things–basically to get out of a life that was killing me, and into one that is full of love and joy. Oliver will always hold a special place in my heart for that.[5]

In a religious tradition that has largely abandoned language of salvation in the 21st century (emphasizing, if anything, that humanity has to save itself), it is perhaps inevitable that its adherents will seek salvific messages where they can find them in other, extra-congregational sources.

The second Mary Oliver poem which appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnbook (also from Dream Work) is “Morning Poem.”  Again, italicized portions indicate the intention that this be used as an antiphonal or responsive reading:

Every morning the world is

created.

Under the orange sticks of the

sun the heaped ashes of the

night turn into leaves again.

And fasten themselves to the high

branches – and the ponds appear

like black cloth on which are

painted islands of summer lilies.

 

If it is your nature to be happy

you will swim away along

the soft trails for hours, your

imagination alighting

everywhere.

 

And if you spirit carries within it

the thorn that is heavier than

lead – if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging –

 

There is still somewhere deep

within you a beast shouting

that the earth is exactly what

it wanted –

 

Each ponds with its blazing lilies is

a prayer heard and answered

lavishly, every morning,

 

Whether or not you have ever

dared to be happy,

whether or not you have ever

dared to pray.

Like “Wild Geese,” “Morning Poem” addresses the suffering individual (“the spirit that carries the thorn that is heavier than lead”), claims that the individual is in the right place (Nature or Earth) and affirms that that place is inherently sacred.  There are resonances with the Book of Genesis in the first line (“Each morning the world is created”), and again, the human is affectionately reduced to the most creaturely of beings (“soft animal” in “Wild Geese” and “a beast” in “Morning Poem”).  As in “Wild Geese,” “Morning Poem” claims that whether or not the human being is particularly religious (“whether or not you have ever dared to pray”), the natural world invites each person to actively participate in the immanent, divine order of things.  It is a reading which, when I ventured to try it with a congregation during worship, did not flow very well, but it contains some memorably beautiful images (the orange sticks of the sun/the pond with the blazing lilies) and a comforting theological message that traditional spiritual practices are not necessary to commune with the “answered prayer” that is Nature.

Emerson and Thoreau said much the same thing in far more prosaic language in the 19th century, of course, unintentionally striking a nearly-fatal blow to the nascent Unitarian movement and leaving a legacy of anti-institutionalism and sporadic church-going that has not abated since their time.  Oliver is a worthy heir to this strand of the Transcendentalist tradition, enthusiastically exhorting the reader to throw themselves down in the grass and worship in that manner, or to do so by floating in a pond, or by spending a summer’s day savoring blackberries on one’s “happy tongue.”

In the last of her contributions to the Unitarian Universalist hymn book, Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods”[6] is excerpted as follows:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

This is a fitting final verse of a poem that juxtaposes satisfaction and goodness (trees turning their own bodies “into pillars of light”) with sadness and even nihilistic imagery (“every pond/no matter what its name is/is nameless now”), but it seems a startlingly inappropriate message for a church to perpetuate.

For one thing, Oliver makes a definitive pastoral statement that works beautifully for her poem but that has no place in a institution whose founder advised us not to love what is mortal as though our lives depended on it, but to love God in that manner, because our lives do depend on it. Similarly, this poem strikes me as a questionable inclusion in a hymn book because, taken out of context of the larger poem, the phrases read as a therapeutic sound bite for “getting over” losses one might have suffered.  Who is to say when the time is to “let it go?” Mary Oliver doesn’t say, but grieving worshipers hearing this on a Sunday morning might legitimately wonder if they are being in some way admonished for not being able to “live in this world” appropriately.  This might be an overly-sensitive concern, but if people are listening carefully for images of God that may offend them (as they often are in a Unitarian Universalist congregation where the vast majority are “come-outers” from more conservative faith traditions– or who come unchurched and critical of traditional religion), are they not listening especially carefully also for words that may spiritually guide and advise them?

Mary Oliver is at her best and most theologically inspiring when writing about theophanies in ordinary life. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive contains what are for me her finest poems in that vein.  In one poem, “The Kitten,” Oliver describes taking a stillborn kitten with one eye from her house cat’s bed and burying it in a field behind her house.

I suppose I could have given it

to a museum,

I could have called the local newspaper.

But instead I took it out into the field

and opened the earth

and put it back

saying, it was real,

saying, life is infinitely inventive. . .

The poet is saying that even this tiny dead being that would have been regarded as grotesque by most people is part of what is natural, and is therefore to be marveled at as evidence of an infinitely creative Creator.  It is her constant refrain; to render the unremarkable remarkable, and the ugly or even treacherous aspects of creation worthy of attention and reverence.  Oliver invites us into solidarity and fellowship with all of life.  She is the anti-Annie Dillard, who so delights in dashing sentimental or anthropomorphized notions of the natural world against the rocks of gleefully clinical descriptions of the horrors of Nature, “red in tooth and claw.”

Oliver’s magnificent poem “Humpbacks,” around which I once designed an entire worship service, is a glorious revelation of the theophany of the humpback whale (see Appendix B) as it “smashes through the surface” of the ocean and hangs “for some unbelievable part of a moment against the sky/like nothing you’ve ever imagined/ like the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of darkness/pouring heavenward.”  As in many of Oliver’s poems, this one is also about the relationship between the human body and the other embodied aspects of creation.  It begins as a creation story, evoking a “country of original fire” in which we live and move and have our being, and later echoes Genesis as it connects the magnificent appearance of the whales to “the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of [the primordial] darkness.”

 

As she often does, Oliver ends her poem with an exhortation to the reader, saying,

Listen, whatever it is you try

to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you

like the dreams of your body –

It is these exhortations, these evangelical moments in Oliver’s poems that are most treasured by those who hear her within the context of worship.  “Don’t love your life too much,” she says in the voice of a butterfly at the end of her poem[7] “One Or Two Things.” And this treasured phrase that appears at the end of “The Summer Day,” a poem I have read at half a dozen memorial services, asks her ultimate question:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” [8] Her theology is broad and humanistic, “incantations drawing us forward to a more authentic life.”[9]

What, then, will Unitarian Universalists make of Oliver’s development as a poet of distinctly Earth-based, broadly humanistic spirituality (with a smattering of Christian images and references sprinkled throughout), to a grieving woman hungering and thirsting after the God of Christian faith in her recent collection, Thirst?

I attended the Installation of a new Unitarian Universalist minister in March of 2008 which used Thirst’s first poem, “Messenger” as an antiphonal benediction read by several of the new minister’s colleagues. The poem begins, “My work is loving the world,” and proceeds with the usual Oliver specificity of reverence — the inevitable lists of aspects of creation she wants to be sure we will not overlook in our hasty pace of life (“Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird/Here the quickening yeast/there the blue plums/Here is the clam deep in the speckled sand”).  But at the last line, a surprise. Rather than her customary reminder that life is brief and therefore must be savored, Oliver ends her poem with a reference to eternal life:

A mouth with which to give shouts of joy

to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

telling them all, over and over, how it is,

that we live forever.[10]

For close readers of Oliver, this phrase is a shift, a hint that something is changing in the poet’s spiritual orientation.  Later in the collection (“Musical Notation: 1”) we find Oliver referring to all of creation as God’s works – more specifically, in traditionally gendered language as “His works.”  Another surprise.

“Have you noticed?” she asks.  Yes, in Thirst, we have noticed for the first time in this collection that Mary Oliver is a faithful Christian woman, weaving glorious poetry out of an all-too human struggle with meaning in the aftermath of a shattering loss.  “Dear Lord,” she begins one poem, and later in that same poem affirms, “Still I believe you will come, Lord: you will…”[11]

Will wounded ex-Christians, agnostics, humanistic, Jewish or Buddhist-oriented Unitarian Universalists who love Mary Oliver’s poetry so much that they take her words as personal creeds and commit them to memory feel betrayed by their Muse’s new direction? Will they accept it and follow where she leads with literary appreciation and healthy self-differentiation? Will they dismiss her devotion to the Christian Way as the disappointing, if understandable, reaction to losing her partner of forty years (a kind of regression, if you will)?  It will be interesting to see how frequently, if at all, poems from Thirst are included in Unitarian Universalist worship services, meditation circles and retreats.

I personally find Thirst to be Oliver’s most mature and powerful collection in a long time, as I had begun to find her work vapid and formulaic.  It is not only the details of her Christian life that I find beautiful and resonant (a description of trying to remember the lectionary lesson when one is depressed, disoriented and grieving; a simple report of attending church and then walking the dog; the plea for God to still our pounding, anxious hearts and bring us to the peace that passeth understanding; the mystery of Eucharistic transformation of bread, wine, self and community), it is the new sense of deep relationality which I find in these poems that inspires and moves me. Oliver’s shift from a poetic voice of such total interiority that it bordered, for me, on irritating self-absorption (no matter how literarily beautiful) to a voice that recognizes and even, in a bittersweet and poignant way, celebrates dependency, inter-dependency and community is, to this admirer, a great literary fulfillment.

 

[1] Commenter Marcia on “There’s Something About Mary,” PeaceBang blog, May 1, 2008. Spelling original.

[2] Commenter Terri, ibid.

[3] Commenter Judy Welles, ibid.

[4] Commenter Terri on “There’s Something About Mary,” PeaceBang blog, May 1, 2008.

[5] Commenter Doxy, ibid.

[6] Mary Oliver, American Primitive (Little, Brown & Company, New York: 1983), 82-83. See appendix A for complete poem.

[7] Mary Oliver, New And Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 120-122.

[8] Ibid, 94.

[9] Rev. Jen Crow, “This Wild And Precious Life,” Sermon given at First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, July 16, 2006.  http://www.rochesterunitarian.org/2005-06/20060716.html

[10] Mary Oliver, Thirst (Beacon Press: Boston, 2006), 1.

[11] Mary Oliver, “Making The House Ready For the Lord,” Thirst (Boston, Beacon Press, 2006), 13.

One Reply to “The Poetry Of Mary Oliver In Unitarian Universalist Liturgy”

  1. Interesting. I definitely feel that the poetry of Mary Oliver (and the Coleman Barks translation of Rumi) is over-used in UU and Unitarian churches.

    I read an interesting article recently about the misanthropic world view of Thoreau, and as you point out, there’s a strand of that in Oliver’s poems.

    As humans, we must relate to each other and to all beings (and relating to a community of humans is a good way to extend compassion to other-than-human beings).

    I suppose the issue with reading one poem in a worship service is that it is then out-of-context with the rest of the poet’s work. When reading privately, one can go back, reread, ponder, and compare with other poems. In a public setting, you’re on to the next thing without enough time to consider what’s just been said.

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