Experiencing Northern Michigan: Community Reading Celebrating Poet Mary Oliver at Traverse City’s Horizon Books

After Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver passed away last month, at the age of 83, the poetry lovers of Northern Michigan organized a community reading for the public to recite her vital writings and remember her impactful legacy. All across the world, people are honoring Oliver’s memory and sharing her enduring words of love, mystery, beauty, meaning, and nature. Here in NoMi, a community of poets, writers, and readers from the Traverse City area and beyond gathered downtown at Horizon Books last Saturday, February 9, for about an hour on a cold and snowy afternoon.

Local poets Anne-Marie Oomen and Teresa Scollon hosted the public reading of Mary Oliver’s graceful poems and nourishing prose in the bookstore’s lower level. Horizon provided free hot cocoa for all, and the basement’s Shine Cafe filled up quickly with readers and listeners of Oliver’s work. Last year Scollon hosted a similar, powerful community event in honor of Black History Month. This past weekend’s meaningful reading of Oliver’s poignant writings reached through to the hearts of everyone listening, to a place of weightlessness on the wings of her words.

More than 20 participants from the Grand Traverse region met to recite their favorite prosaic excerpts and poems Oliver wrote throughout her one wild and precious life. The size of the audience at Horizon was nearly double the number of readers, who included: Susan Odgers, Sam Collier, Jamie Schaub, Bill Smith, Jennifer Superson, Loreen Niewenhuis, Bronwyn Jones, Lisa Wamsley, Anne-Marie Oomen, Teresa Scollon, Catherine Turnbull, Elaine McIntosh, Deirdre Mahoney, Rose Hollander, Liz Kirkwood, Judy Chu, Nancy Parshall, myself, and other readers from the crowd who were eager to join in and share their favorite Oliver creations.

One of the world’s most cherished Mary Oliver poems is “The Summer Day.” Traverse City’s own Teresa Scollon and Anne-Marie Oomen opened the community reading together with a beautiful performance of it. Writer Ruth Franklin noticed how, through poetry, Oliver uses “nature as a springboard to the sacred, which is the beating heart of her work.” This spiritual connection is ever-present in Mary Oliver’s writings. Franklin wrote about Oliver: “Indeed, a number of the poems in this collection [Devotions] are explicitly formed as prayers, albeit unconventional ones.” There is a light, an openness to Oliver’s perspective:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

The range of works selected to share was vast, and each person’s style of reading unique. I read two Mary Oliver poems aloud to the group: “The Sweetness of Dogs” and “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night.” In another dog-inspired poem, Oliver writes, “Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble. A dog is a true and loving friend. A dog is also a hedonist.” One of my favorite bloggers, Maria Popova of the brilliant blog Brain Pickings, wrote about the power of affection in Oliver’s 2013 poetry book, Dog Songs: “the wholehearted devotion of dogs, who love us unconditionally and in the process teach us to love; in letting us see ourselves through their eyes, they help us believe what they see, believe that we are worthy of love, that we are love.” In case we forget.

Mary Oliver had told NPR that poetry “musn’t be fancy.” She valued simplicity. “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear,” she said. “I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.” In her The New Yorker article, Franklin wrote about this simplicity in Oliver’s accessible poetry: “That’s what makes her so beloved by so many people. It doesn’t feel like you have to take a seminar in order to understand Mary Oliver’s poetry. She’s speaking directly to you as a human being.” Take, for instance, my favorite lines from her poem “The Ponds”:

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —

At the end of the moving community reading, event co-host Oomen commented to the crowd: “This feels as close to church as I come.” Northern Michigan voices shared the strength, hope, and joy expressed in Oliver’s work this past Saturday, bringing to life her light and wisdom for the Traverse City community. For more spirit-lifting content to soothe your soul, check out Krista Tippett’s rare interview with Mary Oliver, “on the world, poetry, and the life behind her writing,” which Oliver recorded in 2015 with Tippett’s award-winning podcast On Being.

In that interview, Oliver offers that poetry is: “very old; it’s very sacred; it wishes for a community; it’s a community ritual, certainly. And that’s why, when you write a poem, you write it for anybody and everybody. And you have to be ready to do that out of your single self. It’s a giving. It’s a gift to yourself, but it’s a gift to anybody who has the hunger for it.” Hungry? Listen to Mary Oliver read her famous poem, “The Summer Day,” and let the final couplet of it sink in:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Categories: Experiencing Northern Michigan, the four