Some Mary Oliver Poems

I was introduced to the work of Mary Oliver through a snippet from her poem The Summer Day, which closes with the line: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Years later, when I was ruminating on a conversation about the power of asking Why Not?, I read the following:

Then a wren in the privet began to sing.

He was absolutely drenched in enthusiasm.

I don’t know why. And yet, why not.

Her tiny passage about a wren was the last nudge I needed to start slowly picking away at various collections by this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

Without any more preamble, here are some of my recent favourites – a few poems in their entirety and, from others, little snippets that made me stop, think and/or say: Wow.

From Freshen the Flowers, She Said:

a bounce upward at the end to let them take
their own choice of position, the wheels, the spurs,
the little sheds of the buds.  It took, to do this,
perhaps fifteen minutes,
Fifteen minutes of music
with nothing playing.

I loved – and instantly recognized what she meant – by that last line: fifteen minutes of music with nothing playing.

From Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

This World

I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it
nothing fancy.
But it seems impossible.
Whatever the subject, the morning sun
glimmers it.
The tulip feels the heat and flaps its petals open and becomes a star.
The ants bore into the peony bud and there is a dark
pinprick well of sweetness.
As for the stones on the beach, forget it.
Each one could be set in gold.
So I tried with my eyes shut, but of course the birds
were singing.
And the aspen trees were shaking the sweetest music
out of their leaves.
And that was followed by, guess what, a momentous and
beautiful silence
as comes to all of us, in little earfuls, if we’re not too
hurried to hear it.
As for spiders, how the dew hangs in their webs
even if they say nothing, or seem to say nothing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe they sing.
So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe the stars sing too,
and the ants, and the peonies, and the warm stones,
so happy to be where they are, on the beach, instead of being
locked up in gold

My favourite, again, was her closing; imagery of stones on the beach, blissfully content in the absence of gold. Gold glitters, but it can also trap…

From Snow Geese:

I held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match,
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
but delightfully,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.

How does she manage to always finish her poems in such a magical way? I guess this is why she was a Pulitzer Prize winner…and I am not?!

The Wren from Carolina

Just now the wren from Carolina buzzed
through the neighbor’s hedge
a line of grace notes I couldn’t even write down
much less sing.

Now he lifts his chestnut colored throat
and delivers such a cantering praise—
for what?
For the early morning, the taste of the spider,

for his small cup of life
that he drinks from every day, knowing it will refill.
All things are inventions of holiness.
Some more rascally than others.

I’m on that list too,
though I don’t know exactly where.
But every morning, there’s my own cup of gladness,
and there’s that wren in the hedge, above me, with his

blazing song.

Other favourites:

  • From Luna: I live in the open mindedness of not knowing enough about anything.
  • From The Old Poets of China: Wherever I am, the world comes after me. If offers me its busyness. It does not believe that I do not want it.
  • From Mindful: Every day I see or I hear something that more or less kills me with delight; [I] instruct myself over and over in joy…of the ordinary, the common, the very drab.

Your turn. Are you a fan of Mary Oliver? If so, do you have a favourite poem?

Header photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash

18 thoughts on “Some Mary Oliver Poems”

  1. Mary Oliver is my favourite poet! I love her collection Devotions. I don’t know if I can choose one favourite. I love Why I Wake Early, I love I Wake Close To Morning, This Morning, and Storage. Also Don’t Hesitate, Mindful, Flare. I read Beaver Moon – The Suicide of a Friend at a time that I had some friends who were really struggling, and it was extremely moving.

    1. I Wake Close to Morning and Storage are on my second list of poems I loved (I might post those in the next few weeks?!). I also like Roses and, on the topic of grief, For Tom Shaw S.S.J.E (1945-2014)
      On love: I Did Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly and I Have Just Said

  2. I am SUCH a huge Mary Oliver fan. I think Nicole really got me into her poems. Each one finds so much joy and/or awe in nature and life and the lived experience. They are so moving and eye opening, even as they are startlingly simple.

    1. Yes! Her simplicity and genuine enthusiasm for life/nature are refreshing. While her poems are often “layered” they still feel very accessible and lack pretension. She’s aware-winning for good reason!!

  3. I’ve only seen quotes of Mary Oliver poems in people’s blogs, but I love them. Maybe I’ll get one of her collections for Christmas- what’s your favorite?

    1. You should! Felicity and Why I Wake Early are my two favourites so far. There are some really big collections that pull in poems from different periods in her life; I had one recently, but felt it was a bit overwhelming as a library book because it become too much of a good thing, so I’d opt to buy a bigger collection over getting it from the library?

  4. i learned about her work this year only and want to buy her poem books next time I go to the US. It’s better to read poems in real books than kindle so I can contemplate it for a while. These you selected are lovely.

    1. At this point I don’t own a Kindle, but I can imagine poetry especially being a nicer experience when reading a paper copy!

  5. I have not read any Mary Oliver yet but your pest reminded me that I used to love poetry. I even loved it in school when we had to take them apart and think them through (mostly German ones). I always admired when poets managed to put whole stories and worlds in just a few lines. The ones you selected sound beautiful. Really would like to check out more of her writing now. Thank you for the introduction.

    1. I’ve never been a big poetry buff, but I’m appreciating this art form more and more as I get older. SO much can be conveyed in just a few short lines and I love the flexibility of sentence structure, etc., that poetry affords the author!

  6. As you probably guessed, I’m a fan. My introduction to Mary Oliver was Mindful, and it is still probably my favourite, but I have saved a lot of quotes from her poems.

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