Extraordinary. A poet filling a 2,500 seat concert hall, a standing ovation for her inspired presence and ecstatic reading. Mary Oliver, Pulitzer Prize winner, National Book Award winner, remarkable human being, captivated the crowd last night at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. I’ve rarely attended an event as deeply delightful and as moving.
When was it I discovered her poems? Many years ago in the midst of major life-transitions (have they ever stopped?) The Journey was the first and Wild Geese and The Summer Day. Mary Oliver’s poems are eminently accessible, which is to say profound in their simplicity. There is often a transparent magic in them, and sometimes transparent grief, eloquently connected to her stated purpose of loving the world. A few lines and it is clear she has been to the bottom of our modern wound, the loss of our innocent perception and connection to that world.
And for this reason I have also often felt that she touches deeply on the kinds of leadership themes that most interest me, the ones that see leading as a mystery that begins with a desire to help in the healing of that wound. The great leaders I most admire are entirely realistic and pragmatic, understanding that the human spirit must pass through many dark times in order to grow, but they have not lost their inner capacity for primary innocence, for dreams and delight, despite those inevitable, sometimes awful losses intrinsic to the process of becoming.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
she writes at the end of The Summer Day, which is a question about awakening, attending to the world, and in so asking she cuts through the dross of our daily ambitions, machinations, complaints, and televised self-absorption. Her poems bring our heads and hearts back up out of the sand to do something radical: to see and feel what is really here, to re-ground our potent imaginations in that view. Quoting The Journey, we are then free to save the only lives we can save.
Listening last night from the fourth row back as she shared one remarkable poem after the next, I thought, “What have we done to this concept of leading?” Corrupted it. Given it over to formulas, categories, techniques, the will and the conscience, to cold, overly masculine attributes based on the nature of power and intentional influence. Hmmm, there is a side of leadership that touches these elements, but it also makes leading something distant and lonely — and only for the few. The testimony of Mary Oliver, her 71 year-old voice strong and humble, stands up to all that by simply reminding us — any of us — of the magnificence of the place where we live and reminding us, too, of our inner mission, by virtue of the primary love from which we came and are destined to reclaim. Simple. Profound.
There she was: “beauty the brave, the exemplary, blazing open.”
She is exactly her poems.