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:
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.”
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.
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
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
“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.