Mary Oliver: Well, I think because with words, I could build a world I could live in. I had a very dysfunctional family, and a very hard childhood. So I made a world out of words. And it was my salvation.
Maria Shriver: Do you have a favorite word?
Mary Oliver: A few [laughs]. Love, mirth, praise, constancy...
Maria Shriver: What about a favorite poet?
Mary Oliver: I suppose it would have to be Whitman, unless it's Rumi or Hafiz. And I do love Emerson's poetry. And of course I named my dog Percy after Shelley. And how could anybody not love Keats.
Maria Shriver: I love Rumi.
Mary Oliver: Absolutely. And it is what I love—to contain both the spiritual life and the life in this world—that he does so beautifully.
Maria Shriver: Do you think it's possible to contain the spiritual world and also be of the "real world" in 2011?
Mary Oliver: I definitely believe that. And I think if you skimp on one or the other, you're not getting the whole show. You have to be in the world to understand what the spiritual is about, and you have to be spiritual in order to truly be able to accept what the world is about.
Maria Shriver: When you talk of the spiritual, though, you're not talking about organized religion.
Mary Oliver: I'm not, though I do think ceremony is beautiful and powerful. But I've also met some people in organized religion who aren't so hot. I've written before that God has "so many names." To me, it's all right if you look at a tree, as the Hindus do, and say the tree has a spirit. It's a mystery, and mysteries don't compromise themselves—we're never gonna know. I think about the spiritual a great deal. I like to think of myself as a praise poet.
Maria Shriver: What does that mean?
Mary Oliver: That I acknowledge my feeling and gratitude for life by praising the world and whoever made all these things.
Maria Shriver: Is that the poet's goal? Or is the goal to make people look at nature in a different way? Is it to touch their soul? Is it for them to feel delight?
Mary Oliver: All of those things. I am not very hopeful about the Earth remaining as it was when I was a child. It's already greatly changed. But I think when we lose the connection with the natural world, we tend to forget that we're animals, that we need the Earth. And that can be devastating. Wendell Berry is a wonderful poet, and he talks about this coming devastation a great deal. I just happen to think you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. So I try to do more of the "Have you noticed this wonderful thing? Do you remember this?"
Maria Shriver: You try to praise.
Mary Oliver: Yes, I try to praise. If I have any lasting worth, it will be because I have tried to make people remember what the Earth is meant to look like.
Maria Shriver: You were talking earlier about how you felt happy writing and being in nature, so you moved toward happiness. So many people think that poets are tortured souls.
Mary Oliver: Well, we went through a whole period of confessional poets. And I think a lot of people—certainly Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—got therapy mixed up with the work they were doing, and that's a shame. I may be wrong, but it seems like they felt they could heal themselves through writing, and it didn't work. I don't usually mess around with what makes me unhappy when I'm writing. I want to write poems that will comfort, maybe amuse, enliven other people. I don't mean that the world is all great and wonderful. But I'm careful to—I try to keep the emphasis on the good and the hopeful.
Next: Oliver reveals a dark secret from her past and how she dealt with losing her life partner