Remembering Mary Oliver

The beloved American poet Mary Oliver (1935–2019) died today, leaving behind a rich and vast body of literary work. Oliver was arguably the most popular poet of her generation, best known for her poems of the natural world. 

Her style is quickly recognizable; at once sublime and grounded, her language conveys sweeping spiritual states through tactile and terrestrial detail. In her signature blend of breathless reverence and plain-spokenness, Oliver carries forward the voices of the American literary past: Emerson and Thoreau, Dickinson and Whitman. Oliver was a gifted prose writer as well, producing volumes of prose poems, such as Blue Pastures, and books of insightful essays, such as Upstream. Her slim, lucid volume on poetics, A Poetry Handbook, should be required reading for any poet or lover of poetry.

In remembrance of Mary Oliver, we’ve gathered a handful of her poems that offer a glimpse into her indelible contribution to American literature:

Music Lessons

Sometimes, in the middle of the lesson,

we exchanged places. She would gaze a moment at her hands

spread over the keys; then the small house with its knickknacks,

its shut windows,

its photographs of her sons and the serious husband,

vanished as new shapes formed. Sound

became music, and music a white

scarp for the listener to climb

alone. I leaped rock over rock to the top

and found myself waiting, transformed,

and still she played, her eyes luminous and willful,

her pinned hair falling down —

forgetting me, the house, the neat green yard,

she fled in that lick of flame all tedious bonds:

supper, the duties of flesh and home,

the knife at the throat, the death in the metronome.


Oliver turns a memory of piano lessons into a meditation on the transformative power of music as well as the tug of time. In a synesthetic twist, music becomes earth, “a white / scarp for the listener to climb // alone.” The enjambment before “alone” is both clever and affecting, as is the poem’s unforgettable final phrase, “the death in the metronome.”

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —                                                  over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.


Like many of Oliver’s best poems, “Wild Geese”—from Oliver’s volume Dream Work—handles spiritual themes with clarity and directness. Oliver’s speaker confronts the question of belonging, of finding a place for oneself in the vastness of creation. Oliver, ever the poet, offers “imagination” itself as the key.

Morning Glories

Blue and dark blue

                rose and deepest rose

                               white and pink they

are everywhere in the diligent

                 cornfield rising and swaying

                                in their reliable

finery in the little

                fling of their bodies their

                               gear and tackle

all caught up in the cornstalks.

               The reaper’s story is the story

                               of endless work of

work careful and heavy but the

               reaper cannot

                              separate them out there they

are in the story of his life

               bright random useless

                              year after year

taken with the serious tons

               weeds without value humorous

                              beautiful weeds.


“Morning Glories,” from Oliver’s collection White Pine, beautifully mimics its subject matter. The morning glories, with their tendency to sprawl and entangle themselves, are reflected in Oliver’s lines, which flow ever onward, unhindered by punctuation or line breaks.


For long-standing lovers of Mary Oliver’s work, today invites us to remember her poems and prose pieces—and the epiphanies and lessons to be found there. For those new to Oliver, hopefully these poems have piqued your curiosity and opened the door to her writings.