NEW YORK — The words were by Mary Oliver, the emotions were Hillary Rodham Clinton’s and others who came to pay tribute.
The former secretary of state and presidential candidate was among the readers Monday night honoring the beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who died in January at age 83. Speaking before hundreds at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, Clinton and such friends of Oliver as Maria Shriver and John Waters all praised the poet’s non-conforming spirit and profound bond with the natural world. They told stories and joked over who would get to read which poem, choosing from “The Journey,” ”Don’t Hesitate” and other Oliver favorites.
Only a recording of Oliver herself reading her classic “Wild Geese” received the kind of applause — a soaring standing ovation — that Clinton did on Monday. After explaining that she learned of Oliver through her late mother, Clinton read three poems, among them “I Worried,” which she called “especially suited for the times in which we live.” Lines from Oliver’s work seemed to echo Clinton’s life. “Don’t Hesitate,” and its urging that “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate/Give in to it,” read like an affirmation of Clinton’s famed 1969 student commencement speech at Wellesley College, when she celebrated the quest for “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”
Oliver’s “When Death Comes” might have been words Clinton took to heart after her loss in 2016 to Donald Trump: “I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened/or full of argument/I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
The night wasn’t all about poetry. Poet Coleman Barks led the audience in a sing-along of the country standard “Hey Good Lookin,’” which he would sing to Oliver in her final days. Filmmaker John Waters, who knew Oliver for more than 50 years, remembered his friend as a drinker and smoker and all-around troublemaker. He also confided — sacrilege to fans of Oliver and her work — that he didn’t care for the poet’s dog.
Shriver called Oliver an inspiration who “turned her inside out” and “gently” gave her the power to hold her own ground. She recalled the years of being rejected by Oliver when she tried to invite her to a women’s conference in California, during the time Shriver was married to the state’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and how Oliver finally accepted and mesmerized the audience.
“It was a friendship, Shriver said, that “began in rejection and ended in total acceptance, total love.”