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Poetic imagery celebrates Earth Day

April 25, 2008

Poetic imagery celebrates Earth Day

Mary Oliver has never written a poem from beginning to end, without edits.

She loves her dog, Percy, dearly, and has devoted at least three poems to him. She likes to read non-fiction, mostly. She draws most of her inspiration from the natural world, but isn’t above placing images of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sniffing presidential armpits in her work – really.

At last Tuesday’s Earth Day celebration, the reclusive Pulitzer-prize winning poet held an audience in a packed Lagerquist Concert Hall spellbound for an hour as she read from her work, a collection of poems spanning over 45 years.

Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her collection of poetry “American Primitive.” Her first collection, “No Voyage, and Other Poems,” was published in 1963, although the thin and silver-haired Oliver told the audience last week she has always written, even as a child.

She also has been more comfortable in the outdoors.

“Whenever I would leave home, I would say ‘I’m going in,’” she told the audience. “Whenever I would go back in the house, I would say ‘I’m going out.’”

It was the poem, “The Summer Day” that inspired the motif for PLU’s Wild Hope Project.

The poem begins with Oliver feeding a grasshopper sugar, and asks how often we pay attention to the wonder around us. It concludes with this thought: “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?”

It is this last sentence that has become the cornerstone of the Wild Hope Project, challenging students to ask: “What will I do with my one wild and precious life?” Funded by the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, the project helps students develop a sense of their personal vocation, and provides support to faculty and staff in nurturing this development.

Born in Maple Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, Oliver attended both Ohio State University and Vassar College in the mid-1950s, but didn’t receive a degree from either. During the 1980s, she taught at Case Western Reserve University, and moved to Bucknell University in 1986. Her partner, Molly Malone Cook, served as Oliver’s literary agent until Cook’s death in 2005. Oliver now lives in Provincetown, Mass.

Whitman and Thoreau have influenced her poems, and she has been compared to Emily Dickinson. Although well known for her observations of nature, Oliver’s poems of late also include imagery of dead soldiers and the foibles of politicians.

“As the world gets more and more broken, it’s working its way into my writing,” she said.

Among those poems she read at PLU last week, one was a tribute to Cook. And the picture of Rumsfeld with his nose in President Bush’s armpit? Oliver said that brought some murmurs of disapproval during a reading in a state that she refused to name.

“Some applauded, and some didn’t,” she said of the reading of that particular poem.

Oliver’s reading concluded the English Department’s Visiting Writer Series.