Mary Oliver on Love, Work & the Power of Books to Save Lives

mary oliver

For British philosopher Alain De Botton, “Books are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters.  They are the perfect cure for loneliness.  They can be our very closest friends.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson shared the belief that books could console and offer companionship.  For him, a library was “a company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world” who could miraculously make “the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us.”  Whereas for esteemed literary critic Matthew Arnold, a well-stocked library was an invaluable collection of “the best that’s been thought and said.”

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver— our era’s luminous, large-hearted champion of silence, solitude, and devoted attention— books are a way to disappear into the life of someone else.  In her spirit-consoling essay collection Upstream, Oliver recalls that in her lonely childhood, she found solace in two parallel worlds: nature and books.  In nature, she uncovered a gateway to God, an entry to the sublime and sacred; in books, the profound relief that comes from sloughing off the skin of the self. 

Because a novel is a map tracing the topography of another person’s consciousness, reading is a masterclass in being someone else, a kind of magic portal to another realm.  Between the wrinkled pages of a book, we can be suburban housewives, glamorous debutantes, poor 19th century factory girls.  Though these characters lead vastly different lives from our own, immersed in their stories— their loves, their longings, their plights, their predicaments, their nightmares, their hells— we realize, in the lovely words of Ms. Oliver, there’s an “unbreakable cord” that unites us all; in other words, we find a powerful remedy to “it’s just me” syndrome.  By reminding us of our common humanity, books not only alleviate our loneliness— they widen our circle of empathy and enlarge our hearts:

“The second world— the world of literature— offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it.  I relaxed in it.  I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything— other people, trees, clouds.  And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness— the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books— can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.” 

In the same way a crush often begins with slight intrigue but ends in infatuation, Oliver’s interest in books began as a passing preoccupation but became an all-absorbing obsession.  For her, reading wasn’t a mere past time— it was a matter of life or death.  In the storm-tossed sea of her dysfunctional childhood, books were an indispensable life raft:

“I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly.  I read by day and into the night.  I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes.  I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

[…]

I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty.  I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life.  I wrote that way too.” 

Why does Oliver love language?  Much like Rebecca Solnit, a staunch advocate of calling things by their true names in our post-truth world, Oliver loves language because it’s an empowering way to make life mean.  To compose a graceful sentence where— as T.S. Eliot once said— “every word is at home,” to be able to sort airy abstractions into solid semantic compartments of comprehensible meaning is a power unparalleled.  In his compelling argument against cliche, endlessly erudite Alain De Botton wrote that “how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  Indeed, when we possess the words to more fully name things, we can more fully participate in our experience:  

“I did not think of language as the means to self-description.  I thought of it as the door— a thousand opening doors!— past myself.  I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.”

In his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi claimed work is essential to happiness.  Though as a culture we view work as the antithesis of play, work— when it’s a calling, a vocation— can be a labor of love.  Because Oliver loved writing and wasn’t simply writing to attain some result, her long hours at the typewriter were bliss rather than an interminable hell.  And because she took such delight in composing beautiful arrangements of words, she was able to commit the endless years needed to become a master:

“I saw what skill was needed, and persistence— how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page— the long labor.  I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort.  Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work.”  

In a lovely line, Oliver outlines the life-affirming commandments of her own personal credo:

You must not ever stop being whimsical.  

And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”

What makes a life worthwhile?  Poets and philosophers have pondered this existential puzzle for millennia.  But for Oliver, the answer is simple: love and work.

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet.  But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating.  And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe — that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.”