Remembering Mary Oliver (1935-2019)
Remembering Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

By Julie Barber

On January 17, 2019, we all said goodbye to one of the most respected and decorated American poets of our time. Mary Oliver was a Pulitzer Prize winner, holder of the National Book Award for Poetry, and beloved poetry stereotype butt-kicker. Before I discovered Mary Oliver’s work, I was scared to death of poetry. I was a prisoner to the misconception that poetry was a complex, brain-melting art that only people smarter than me could understand—let alone enjoy! I wish I could say that a caped Mary Oliver stormed into my poetry class, heroically declared that poetry “mustn’t be fancy” and freed me from the shackles of my poetry phobia, but my life just isn’t that cool. Instead, it was her poem “The Summer Day” that showed me poetry doesn’t have to be complicated. Or flowery. Or in iambic pentameter. You know what, since we’re on the subject, let’s reflect on some of the most common (and annoying) misconceptions about poetry.

Poetry Has to Rhyme

This is the top poetry myth that makes me want to hickory dickory knock someone out, but violence is never the answer.

Poetry is Always Eloquent

Some people seem to think that poetry hasn’t evolved since Shakespeare, but alas, good folk! Some of the best poems and lyrics are composed with raw, gritty, and modern words.

Poetry is Always Short

This misconception must have been created by those who never had to read “The Odyssey” in high school.

All Poetry is About Love

Whoever believes this must not have heard of the guy who wrote about evil ravens, hearts beating beneath floorboards, and swinging pendulums of doom.

Let these poetry myths be your food for thought for today. You might even think of some others I missed! But the four that I listed have one thing in common: they were all debunked by Mary Oliver. Are there certain guidelines and standards we should keep in mind when writing poetry? Of course, but none that stifle our creativity. After all, life is too wild and too precious to spend it writing “fancy” poetry.

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