Mary Oliver Upstream

Mary Oliver Finds the Antidote to Confusion in Literature


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"And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart."

Mary Oliver

The American poet, Mary Oliver (1935-2017), fuses two loves in her pursuit of life: nature and writing. These passions offer hidden blessings, allowing her to swim upstream and change her life’s circumstances.

Her powers of observation strengthen with each step she takes in the world – all because spending time in nature was available to her throughout her life. 

Mary Oliver Upstream

As a child, she marched across the diverse Ohio forests and as an adult spent time in New England’s woodlands.

In her collection of essays, Upstream, there is a consistently hidden figure: the child. Just like the veins in a leaf and the line that marks a page, the child is known to oneself and to others by careful study and attention.

“In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed.”

Mary Oliver

Only when we confront everyday experience will we come to know who we are.

“I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it,” Mary Oliver writes, “before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.” 

She explains that when William Wordsworth studied himself, he found the subject astonishing.

“Actually what he studied was his relationship to the harmonies and also to the discords of the natural world.”

It was attending to these harmonies, according to Mary Oliver, that created the excitement – the child-like enthusiasm to know and understand the world.

The child, unlike the adult, does not control her circumstances. Mary Oliver recognizes that whatever takes the child beyond her circumstances is a blessing, especially when those circumstances are as grim as Mary Oliver’s were.

In one of the most delicately written essays inside this collection called, “Staying Alive,” Mary Oliver comments on the blessings that emerged as her fuel to swim upstream: nature and writing.

While she admittedly prefers the natural world to the social world, she finds the antidote to her confusion brought on by the social world hiding in literature.

"In the first of these—the natural world—I felt at ease; nature was full of beauty and interest and mystery, also good and bad luck, but never misuse."

Mary Oliver

It is through nature, though, that she learns to stand in this ambiguity. Nature cannot be controlled, but we do decide what our relationship with nature will be like. What Mary Oliver comes to realize is that this decision has everything to do with how we approach reading.
“The second world—the world of literature—offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything—other people, trees, clouds.”

Mary Oliver

Through writing, she learned the pleasure of form and how to sustain empathy. These two seemingly disparate worlds, nature and writing, are simultaneously full of ambiguity and empty of control. That is the intrigue. The natural world was “full of beauty and interest and mystery” and yet it was the world of literature that invited her to stand inside this otherness.
"And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart."

Mary Oliver

This empathy, understanding, even attention to what is different, strange, or entirely other, is not confusion itself. It is standing in this otherness where clarity arrives. This is the antidote to confusion that a child learns by living in the world, living with others, and living for others.
“I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.”

Mary Oliver

It was through this power of observation that the natural world taught her to appreciate harmony and discord. To study the harmonies and discords of the natural world is not make them sit still. The same might be said of attending to oneself, and this is the profundity of the musical metaphor. Language is like music – writing is not the antidote to confusion because it allows us to sit still. It functions as the antidote to confusion because it reminds us we are always moving – ever upstream. Each mark on the page is a representation and each representation is a communicative act.
“I did not think of language as the means to self-description. 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.”

Mary Oliver

Whereas some writers might think of the language they set down on paper as a means to harness the observed world, Mary Oliver thought of these words as doors – portals – to new dimensions.
“Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances—a passion for work.”

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver Finds the Antidote to Confusion in Literature