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Mary Oliver: Mystic of the Natural World

Wyman Atencion

By Jon Sievert

According to the New York Times, Mary Oliver is, “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.” At this Sunday’s Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Service, the Rev. Wyman Rousseau examines why her poetry resonates with so many people and why we need a poet like her. What is it about her poetry that makes it so appealing and vital?

Engaging poems explore universal themes and emotions and invite us into an experience that awakens our senses. In her slim manual on poetry, A Poetry Handbook, Oliver writes, “The poem is an attitude, and a prayer….poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” In other words, poetry feeds the spirit and affirms emotions, longings, and sorrows and joys that are common to the human soul.

Like a modern day Henry David Thoreau or Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver, who turned 82 on September 10, is a mystic of the natural world. She invites us to wonder, and reminds us, “to pay attention…our endless and proper work.” Her instructions to the living are, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. Just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate. This isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”

Many regard her poetry as spiritual. Elsewhere she has written, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” She is hopeful that by paying careful attention to the natural world, we will learn to approach the world with a greater sense of wonder that might bring on a greater sense of respect that the natural world so badly needs.

Her work has been widely honored, including the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for American Primitive and the 1992 National Book Award for Poetry for New and Selected Poems. The service includes readings of selected poems. Special music is by pianist Nicole Graboi.

Reverend Rousseau has been a Unitarian Universalist minister for 49 years, serving congregations in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Florida, and North Carolina. He is the founder of Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro, NC, and served for six years as the Southeastern Regional Coordinator for the Haiku Society of America.

The UU Fellowship meets every Sunday at 10:30am at Posada de Aldea, Ancha de San Antonio 15, and welcomes people of all ages, races, religions, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The room is wheelchair accessible. For more information, visit our website at


UU Service

“Mary Oliver: Poet of Wonder”

By Wyman Rousseau

Sun, Sep 17, 10:30am

Posada de la Aldea, Ancha de San Antonio 15



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