The poet Mary Oliver died last week, the day after my first OLLI (Osher Lifetime Learning Institute) winter class, “What Makes a Poem?” I have always loved her poetry, but upon her death I decided to read A Poetry Handbook to see what she had to say about the writing process. What did Mary Oliver say “made” a poem?
What I discovered in the Handbook that resonated even more was what she said about how she lived her life in order to be a poet. She decided early on not to teach because she liked teaching very much and understood that it would distract her from being a “real poet,” or writing her best possible poetry. Therefore, she determined that her jobs would never be “interesting.”
She said that over the years she learned two things “of special interest to poets.” The first was that it was possible to get up early, before “the world’s work schedule,” and write or take a walk and then write. (She was known for drawing inspiration from her walks.) The second was that “one can live simply and honorably on just about enough money to keep a chicken alive.” But there was one thing she did not have to learn:
This I have always known – that if I did not live my life immersed in the one activity which suits me, and which also, to tell the truth, keeps me utterly happy and intrigued, I would come someday to bitter and moral regret.
She didn’t say she would be unhappy or even unfulfilled. She said she would come to “bitter and moral regret.” Her writing was a moral obligation to herself. Her daily work was an occupation, her poetry was a calling that could not be ignored.
I was recently talking to a colleague about a potential job opportunity. She said it combined the ability to learn new skills with the joy of serving students. Whatever her next career move might be, she knew it had to bring her joy.
Some of us are fortunate enough to find joy in our daily occupations. Others must work at unsatisfying jobs for food and shelter. If we are lucky, we can nourish our souls in other ways, and live without regret.