Poet Mary Oliver has died at age 83 at her home in Florida. Much loved for her poems of the natural and spiritual worlds, she believed that poetry “mustn’t be fancy.” Her clear-eyed, plain spoken use of language, not only won her a legion of loyal readers but also a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
Oliver was a lifelong dog lover, and dogs would often stray into view in her lyrical observations of life. Her dog Percy, a rescue whom Oliver immortalized in her celebrated “Percy” poems—was described by the poet as “a mixture of gravity and waggery.” Oliver collected her dog poems in Dog Songs, published in 2013. We meet Bear, who, running through the snow, writes “in large, exuberant letters/a long sentence/expressing the pleasures of the body in this world.” And Luke, a former junkyard dog who came to love flowers: “Briskly she went through the fields,/ yet paused/for the honeysuckle/or the rose/her dark head/and her wet nose/ touching/the face/ of every one.” And Benjamin, a formerly abused dog who was afraid of many things. To comfort the dog, Oliver “fondles his long hound ears” and tells him, “Don’t worry. I also know the way/the old life haunts the new.” We also meet Sammy, infamous in Oliver’s hometown for roaming, and Ricky, a rescue from Cuba with lots of attitude.
One of her most quoted passages about dogs remains appreciated for the simple truth it conveys to every person who has loved a canine:
“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?”
We are proud to say that Mary Oliver was a fan of The Bark and contributed the occasional poem to our pages. Several years ago, Bark’s editor received an envelope addressed to the “poetry editor,” in it was a poem, simply typed on a single sheet with the name “Mary Oliver” appearing in the corner with a Providence, MA address. We received half a dozen or so of these submissions through the years and were greatly honored to publish them. Oliver graced us all with a gift of words that captured the wonder of the world, the essence of being alive and, often, the special love for a dog.
“And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old—or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.”
―Mary Oliver, Dog Songs
One of Oliver's poem submissions to The Bark