What Mary Oliver can teach us about handling criticism with grace

The best way to deal with people who try to bring you down is to worry less about yourself in the first place.
The best way to deal with people who try to bring you down is to worry less about yourself in the first place.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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Nature poets aren’t normally associated with controversy. But the New York Times’ Friday morning briefing on the death of poet Mary Oliver couldn’t resist a bit of negging:

In memoriam: Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, used plain language and minute attention to write about the natural world. She earned wide popularity, and comparisons to Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, although critical reaction was mixed. She died on Thursday at 83.

At first glance, it might seem strange to include a reference to Oliver’s lukewarm critical reception in so short a notice. But whatever the Times’ intentions, the ways in which Oliver’s work was routinely dismissed or overlooked were actually a critical part of her legacy.

In a culture where qualities like kindness and sensitivity are associated with femininity and therefore routinely devalued, it’s no surprise that Oliver’s big-hearted, emotionally open writing style meant that her reputation routinely took a hit in literary publications and graduate-school writing classrooms. Going by Oliver’s own words, however, this didn’t bother her in the least. “I did not think of language as the means to self-description,” she wrote in her essay “Staying Alive,” about discovering poetry as a means of coping with a troubled childhood. “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 other words, for Oliver, writing poetry wasn’t about her or how her work would be received; it was about finding a way to move beyond her own consciousness and connect with what she called “the world’s otherness.” And so the story of Oliver and her critics offers a useful lesson for anyone who’s ever faced their share of snobbery: The best way to deal with people who try to bring you down is to worry less about yourself in the first place.

As Ruth Franklin observed in a 2017 New Yorker article, part of the literary establishment’s objection to Oliver lay in her choice of topics: “Because she writes about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and, worst of all, God—she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics.” Then there was the double-edged sword of Oliver’s popular appeal; the same accessibility that landed her an interview in O Magazine made her appear lowbrow in other people’s eyes. Rebecca Onion’s lovely tribute to Oliver in Slate notes that while Onion enjoyed Oliver’s poems as a young woman, she drew away as she became aware of the poet’s unsophisticated fan base: “I felt too clever for Mary Oliver, who was after all a little bit too adaptable for the purposes of online self-help inspo culture. I didn’t like the way yoga teachers would read a bit of Mary Oliver (or Rumi; not enough Whitman) at the beginning of class.”

Of course, work that’s accessible isn’t necessarily anti-intellectual; conversely, just because a lot of people enjoy a given poem or painting doesn’t make it good. But for women artists in particular, popular success is frequently correlated with critical nose-wrinkling. Writer Rachel Syme expanded on the gendered nature of criticisms against Oliver on Twitter, noting “there was a sense among critics that mary oliver was a throw-pillow poet and it always deeply unnerved me … there’s a sneering sexism to that assessment, this idea that engaging with the world as a site of beauty and grace is a light pursuit, this idea that you cannot be serious and love and embrace the world, that you cannot be serious and think about birds and trees.”

It’s understandable—and touching—that Oliver’s fans bristle on her behalf. But to read about Oliver and leaf through her poems is to be assured that criticisms about her choice of subject matter, or her straightforward emotionality, would have rolled right off her back.

Writing about her experience of having Oliver as a teacher, Summer Brennan in The Paris Review observes that Oliver had “almost no ego at all,” bringing drafts of poems that she was still laboring over into class in an effort to normalize artistic struggle. That lack of ego is evident in Oliver’s poems. Consider one of Oliver’s most famous poems, “Wild Geese,” described by Krista Tippett, host of by National Public Radio’s On Being, as a “poem that has saved lives.” It begins:

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.

This is a poem about understanding that you have nothing to prove.

The solace so many find in Oliver’s poems has everything to do with her ability to convey the joy of connectedness, of moving, even temporarily, beyond the limitations of self-consciousness into an experience of something unquestionably bigger. Often, in Oliver’s work, that feeling comes by immersing oneself in nature: listening, for example, to the calls of the wild geese, “harsh and exciting, / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.” Or, as in “Humpbacks,” watching whales breach and dive, leaping first across the distinction between yourself and the animals, then across the divide between reader and speaker: “they crash back under those black silks / and we all fall back / together into that wet fire, you / know what I mean.”

As Oliver told Tippett in 2015, even the “I” in her poems is meant to be expansive: “I have been criticized by one editor who felt that ‘I’ would be felt as ego,” she acknowledges. But, she says, her intention is to bring “the reader into the experience of the poem,” to offer up “an experience that happened to be mine but could well have been anybody else’s.” Readers saw themselves in Oliver’s poems because she wasn’t interested in writing about herself in particular; she was intentionally creating space for the rest of us. In this way, as well as in her focus on nature, Oliver seemed to have operated with a Romantic poet’s understanding of the sublime. She didn’t shy away from subjects like death, and embraced the awe and even terror that come with grappling with the enormity of the natural world. But understanding her own insignificance, and the blurring of the boundaries between herself and others, gave her a feeling of transcendence rather than despair.

Given Oliver’s fundamental poetic populism, it’s difficult to imagine she would have cared that quotes from her books proliferated on Pinterest and Instagram. “It’s a community ritual, certainly,” Oliver said of poetry. “And that’s why, when you write a poem, you write it for anybody and everybody.” And while it’s considered bad form in literary criticism to confuse the author with the speaker, in everything she wrote, Oliver signaled that any peace she had found in life was made possible by looking outside herself. When your focus is “listening to the world,” it doesn’t matter whether your critics think you’re cheesy for writing a poem about lilies. You’re probably not even listening. You’re off taking another long walk in the woods.