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Oliver captivates Marquette

By Jessie Bazan, communication junior
Photo by Dan Johnson

Marquette University President Scott R. Pilarz, S.J., presenting Mary Oliver with an honorary degree.

Venerated American poet Mary Oliver makes very few public appearances. But she came to Marquette on Nov. 12, 2012, and experienced something that made her feel “giddy.”

That’s because the event at which she read from her various collections of poetry and received an honorary degree began with a video of Marquette students reading her poem What I Have Learned So Far.

The video was made for the inauguration of Rev. Scott R. Pilarz, S.J., an avid Oliver fan, when he became Marquette’s 23rd president in September 2011.

“On a personal note, for this English professor and poetry lover turned president, this is a thrill,” he said of Oliver's visit.

On behalf of the university, Provost John J. Pauly presented Oliver with an honorary degree for her “tremendous achievements in the literary world and beyond.”

Oliver has won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and The New York Times called her “far and away, this country’s best-selling poet.”

Bridget Kapler, a teaching assistant in the English Department, says Oliver’s relatable poetry much of it about nature and spirituality is especially valuable for students.

“Mary Oliver has a unique lens to understanding the world around us, and she can offer that to the students as something they can build their own understandings of the world on,” she says.

A sensitive nature

The witty 77-year-old kept the audience engaged with her humor and charm and spent 45 minutes reading from her collections and answering audience questions. And, in a beautiful moment of awareness and empathy for the Marquette community, Oliver read her poem, “As Death Comes,” because she heard the university had “a sorrow recently.” Oliver intends her poetry to be simple but profound.

“Fancy words very often get in the way of the feeling you get from a poem,” she explains.

In between poems, she spoke candidly about everything from the passing of her beloved dog, Percy, to her daily ritual of watching the sun rise. Attendees young and old were enthralled by the legendary poet, whose honest descriptions of the human experience were relatable and touching. As Dr. Angela Sorby, associate professor of English, said during the degree conferral: “Her work is popular. Not just English majors read Mary Oliver.”

A few tips for aspiring poets

During the Q&A portion of the event, Oliver offered aspiring student poets two ways to begin their journey: “Write everything down.” (She carries a notebook with her at all times.) And read a lot: “You learn everything by imitation.”

Her parting advice to young poets was simple: “Think nothing of being successful. Think only of writing good poems.”


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