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The poet as rock star: Mary Oliver returns for reading

Poet Mary Oliver will read at the State Theatre on Sunday.
Copyright 2005 Rachel Giese Brown
Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver and friend in a quiet moment.

The promotional materials for Mary Oliver’s appearance Sunday at the State Theatre call the 72-year-old Provincetown, Mass., resident “America’s best-selling poet.” For anyone who has been moved by Oliver’s poems over the years, though, that is a low-balling of epic proportions.

“She’s so much more,” agrees Jocelyn Hale, executive director of the Loft Literary Center, which is co-presenting Oliver’s appearance with the Hennepin Theater Trust. “It could’ve been, ‘One of our most inspirational poets,’ or, ‘most quoted poets.’ She was here last spring, and it was like a rock star [event]. She’s a very quiet presence, but also very funny and engaging. To hear her read poems that you’ve loved ever since you found her was so beautiful. There was an intensity in the room, and a ripple of happy sighs when she went into things like, `What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ “

Oliver’s 2007 appearance was held at the 800-capacity Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. It sold out in 12 hours. According to Hale, the interview- and travel-shy Oliver was on the phone with her agent moments after the Plymouth reading, saying, “I’ve never had an experience like I just had in Minneapolis. I want to come back.”

This time it will be at the State. To be sure, the sight of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet on the theater’s marquee in downtown Minneapolis (currently shared with former “America’s Funniest Home Videos” host Bob Saget) gives this reader a thrill that few other gigs this season have. Perhaps it’s because there is so much disposable entertainment, and Oliver represents something of a modern-day Thoreau whose poems are both classic and intensely intimate — so much so that the idea of being in a room with hundreds of other people listening to her words may present something of a disconnect.

The power of her poetry
“Her poetry is what I pick up when I need a quiet, purposeful moment away from everything,” says Nikki Schultz, a songwriter and writer from Minneapolis. “When I read her words, I feel grateful, released. I don’t know quite how to describe the power of her work. I think that it is best experienced personally.”

Jade Zirino, an English literature student from New York: “I love her writing because she brings out the beauty in the ordinary, especially pertaining to nature and [she] always keeps a fresh, excited voice. Her poetry contains that fascination with the world that a lot of us lose as we leave childhood.”

Oliver’s poems strike the same personal-universal chord that Rilke and Rumi did centuries ago. Poems such as “The Journey” and “Wild Geese” have meant as much to me as many of my favorite songs, but unlike music, there is a calm wisdom to her work that relies as much on silence as it does rhythm. Plus, the sequestered-away-from-the-numbers ritual of reading poetry is a welcome respite from everyday chaos.

“I think interest in poetry in general is on the rise,” says Hale. “I think in these complex times people turn to the beauty and solace of poetry and have a deeper relationship with language and thought. I’ve had a Mary Oliver book by my bedside for years, and I go to different poems for different moods.”

She has plenty of company. Keith Wyne, an Outward Bound instructor and counselor from Minneapolis, discovered Oliver’s work while in college. The 28-year-old has remained an ardent fan of Oliver’s insights into life, prayer, stillness and the natural world.

“Her poems guide me in a way,” he says. “They remind me to pay attention, to find compassion, and they give expression to the excitement of life and the world around me. They also mentor. When a close friend passed away a few years ago, I found myself poring over her words to find comfort and validation for my grieving. And when I got married nearly four years ago on the banks of the Mississippi River, my wife and I incorporated two of her poems into our ceremony — ‘The Journey’ and ‘Morning Poem’ —  because the words gave expression to who we are and what it is we value.”

What: Mary Oliver, launching the Loft and Hennepin Theatre Trust’s “Literary Legends” series
When: 7 p.m., Sunday, March 30
Where: State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Tickets: $25 and $32
Call: 612-373-5623
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