Debra Dean Murphy: Mary Oliver and other poets can help us perceive -- and protect -- the natural world

Mary Oliver's poetry often drew from close attention to the natural world. Oliver died Jan. 17, 2019 at the age of 83. Getty Images / Photo by Kevork Djansezian

The disciplined reading of poetry can inculcate a mindset of paying deep attention to the world around us, says a scholar.

Can reading poetry save the environment? Not exactly, but Debra Dean Murphy says that the work of poets such as Mary Oliver, who died last month, can teach us to pay attention to the natural world, sparking wonder at the particular trees and land and creeks and creatures around us.

“She can invite the reader of her poems into postures that help us engage not only her poetry but the world with receptivity, wonder,” Murphy said.

Poetry by Oliver and others also resists certainty and opens the reader to ambiguity and mystery, much as the Scriptures do, she said.

Debra Dean MurphyMurphy is an associate professor of religious studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where she teaches courses in theology, ethics, liturgy and church history. She is the author of “Happiness, Health, and Beauty: The Christian Life in Everyday Terms.”

Murphy spoke to Faith & Leadership about why -- and how -- Christians can embrace poetry. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: How does the idea of human impact on the environment link to your argument that aesthetics and poetry matter?

We have to go back to the root of “aesthetics” -- “aisthesis,” the Greek term, which quite literally means to perceive. We tend to use that word “aesthetics” more as a shorthand for thinking about art and art interpretation and beauty, but the Greek word simply means to perceive, to see accurately.

So I’ve been trying to tease out that understanding of aesthetics, that part of what it means. To live truthfully in the world is to see the world for what it is, to see accurately what’s happening. To see what’s happening in a planetary way and in a climate-changing way is to be truthful about the harm that humans have wrought.

The way I would link poetry with that is not a direct line. Part of what I’m saying about poetry is that the disciplined engagement with good poetry engenders sensibilities and virtues that can help us do that work of seeing truthfully, perceiving accurately.

Poetry opens up this space -- Seamus Heaney says this; Paul Muldoon also -- it makes a sort of clarification possible when we enter into it as a discipline. I don’t mean the occasional reading of a poem. I really mean the disciplined engagement personally and corporately with the act of reading good poetry.

It’s not a guarantee. I don’t think, “If you just follow these steps, this will all work out.” These are just hunches that I have from my own life, people I talk to who do this, and poets and critics of poetry.

Q: One of the poets you write about is Mary Oliver. What is the significance of her poetry?

Her best poems are not her most beloved ones, in my view. But her best poems make this connection. Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a plant biologist, talks about something called the “grammar of animacy,” which is talking about things that are animate, that are alive with spirit and breath and are a part of the communion of subjects in the world.

It acknowledges that everything exists in a kind of communion: plants, rock, people, quarks, skyscrapers -- anything and everything. There’s this kind of humming of being that there is a kind of interconnectedness there.

I think Oliver’s poems at their best display that linguistically. She shapes an observation about anything -- a leaf on a tree or a bird -- and she communicates that grammar of animacy, that sense that everyone and everything has their place in the family of things, which is a line from one of her poems.

I think her best poems also put the reader in a kind of posture of receptivity and wonder. One of the things she’s often criticized for is that she’s sentimental and she’s childlike, childish. There can be some poems that succumb to that, but again, at her best, she invites the reader into the wonder that she is experiencing as she describes a shell on the beach or whatever the subject matter might be.

She brings us into that place of wonder and mystery. I think when you cultivate those kinds of sensibilities in yourself, that’s the impetus for change. We can be armed with all the terrifying statistics in the world about what’s happening with the climate -- and they are terrifying -- but what motivates us is when we’re drawn into something through the sheer wonder of it. I think her poems do that.

She is often described as the classic American nature poet, but I think some of her best poems are not about the natural world. Her non-nature poems are maybe some of her most powerful and most overlooked and can have just the same sort of importance for the work I’m trying to do, even though they’re not about trees and bugs and fish.

She writes about a cleaning woman in a bathroom in a Singapore airport, noticing and cherishing. I keep coming back to those words. She can invite the reader of her poems into postures that help us engage not only her poetry but the world with receptivity, wonder. Not certainty, but mystery and beauty.

Q: What’s the connection between theology, Scripture and poetry?

What I’ve come to have some hunches about is that at heart, Scripture and theology are about what we can’t bring to speech -- mystery and metaphor and image -- and much less about settled truths and settled propositions. Lived discipleship at its best is a kind of humility toward Scripture, toward the world or toward even what we hold to be confessionally true.

Poetry gives us permission to just rest in that and not think that we have to outargue every person we come in contact with. Poems are engagements with compressed language that offer multiple meanings. You come to a poem one day and the truth is revealed in a particular way, and the next time you read it, you see other kinds of truth.

I think Scripture functions the same. Christians often miss how much poetry there is in the Bible. Again, we want to reduce the Bible to a manual for right living rather than to enter it as this collection of all sorts of genres where we’re just invited into supple language and metaphors not easily tamed or even understood.

If it’s possible to excite a group of Christians in a church or some kind of setting to do that kind of reading of Scripture -- to just sort of let go of our need to prove and prooftext and be right but begin to try to engage Scripture the way we might try to enter a poem, with some humility and with some openness to what it might reveal -- then we have a shot at least of overcoming even slightly the tensions, the polarities, the polarization that is consuming us now in the culture and in churches.

There are real connections there. And they’ve always been there. I am not saying anything new. I really want to be clear about that. I’m just trying to recover and articulate, in a particular sort of way, some truths that have always been evidenced. Walter Brueggemann talks about the poetry of the Prophets and the Psalms, and I rely a lot on his understanding of Scripture as poetic.

I’m using the crisis of environmental degradation right now as one lens through which to do this work.

Q: If people engaged in this disciplined reading of poetry, what impact would it have on the environment?

“The environment” is a deeply problematic term. We don’t love the environment. We love rivers and forests and creeks and our backyard. We love particular places; we love particular creatures.

This disciplined engagement with poetry puts me in this posture of attending to particularity, of noticing and cherishing what’s in front of me, whether it’s a text of a poem or this runoff in the creeks behind my house -- whatever it might be.

That’s where I think these connections are. And again, I want to be clear that it isn’t a magic formula. But I feel hopeful that it is a kind of practice, and theology is all about practices.

It’s about loving particular places and creatures, and by extension, of course, our human neighbors. Because love of neighbor is absolutely bound up in our love of places. Even to care about the environment already commits me to love of my human neighbors, who are also in particular places, under threat from forces outside their control that are doing great harm to the earth, to the water, to the air.

Q: Do you see this as leading to more a mindset shift rather than policy or advocacy?

I don’t think it’s either-or. I don’t want to pit those against each other or see them as choices but to see that, especially in this current political moment, which is so fraught and so worrisome, these would go hand in hand.

But if we are cultivating these kinds of sensibilities and virtues in our individual and corporate lives, they necessarily lead to some kind of action.

Q: What would you recommend for someone who wants to engage with poetry?

One way (not the only way) to begin is to surrender to something quite counterintuitive in our contentious times: stillness and silence, gifts that poetry gives us as a matter of course. And to make our peace with ambiguity and mystery, to resist argument and proposition as the primary modes of discourse and to trust the plenitude of meaning and lack of certainty that emerges when we sit with good poems.

To resist easy answers. To make a habit of reading poems as prayers -- no matter their subject matter.

Paying deep attention. Paying attention to the moment we’re in.

I keep hinting at how terrible the world is right now -- and I believe that it is, politically and culturally -- but that can distract us. It can put us in this position of worry and fear, where we’re not paying attention in the moment to the neighbor in need, to what’s in front of us. And poems can help us do that.