On the Pleasures of Oliver (Part 1)


I learned to appreciate poetry relatively late in life. A lot of this had to do with the fact that most of my early encounters with the art left nothing but an overwhelming sense of bewilderment (i.e., Is this even English? with Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Is this even poetry? with William Carlos Williams). Poetry was a too dense, too opaque and too clever; I preferred the Impressionist accessibility of prose to poetry’s Abstract aloofness. 

And then a friend introduced me to contemporary poetry. It’s hard for me to articulate the shock I felt when I read those first few lines (although the word “shock” is a good starting point). For someone who had spent a lifetime reading, it was literally shocking to discover that language could be used in such agonizingly exquisite ways.

Since then, I’ve read a fair amount of poetry (contemporary and otherwise) and have accumulated a few favorite poets—all of whom are marvelously accessible. In this post and the next three, I’ll be sharing my favorite works of Mary Oliver, an American poet who writes consistently about themes close to my heart. Without further ado, here’s the first of them:

TO BEGIN WITH, THE SWEET GRASS (7)
by Mary Oliver

1. … 7.
What I loved in the beginning, I think, was mostly myself.

Never mind that I had to, since somebody had to.
That was many years ago.
Since then I have gone out from my confinements,
though with difficulty.

I mean the ones that thought to rule my heart.
I cast them out, I put them on the mush pile.
They will be nourishment somehow (everything is nourishment
somehow or another).

And I have become the child of the clouds, and of hope.
I have become the friend of the enemy, whoever that is.
I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned,
I have become younger.

And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?
Love yourself. Then forget it. Then, love the world.

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