5 Mary Oliver Poems to Use in the Classroom

Do you have a hard time getting students excited about poetry? The work of Mary Oliver has long been celebrated for its simplicity, beauty, and clarity. Her rich, sensory language, exploration of the line between human and non-human worlds, and the frank philosophy that accompanies them, make Oliver’s poems fast favorites with students and teachers alike. In honor of her memory, let’s look at five illuminating pieces to weave into your lesson plans today:

1. “The Summer Day”

Why it’s a great pick: Arguably Oliver’s most famous poem, “The Summer Day” is as simple and accessible as it is wondrous and profound. The poem combines metaphysical questions (“Who made the world? / Who made the swan, and the black bear?”) with the distilled image of a grasshopper in the speaker’s hand. But it’s the poems final lines that adorn t-shirts, coffee mugs, and the walls of countless college dorms: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Teaching points: Study how Oliver uses sensory language to characterize the grasshopper. When the speaker describes the grasshopper’s “enormous and complicated eyes,” the grasshopper’s curious gaze is personified to mimic the philosophical inquiries of the speaker.

Pairs well with: To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, or “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

2. “Wild Geese

Why it’s a great pick: In “Wild Geese,” Oliver uses her iconic natural imagery to address one of life’s most challenging and common experiences: loneliness. As the speaker considers a flock of wild geese flying overhead, she describes all the events on earth that occur in the meantime. Ultimately, the poem offers solace to even the most solitary reader: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination.”

Teaching points: Discuss the way Oliver uses anaphora—the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of sequential lines—to distinguish between the three phases of the poem. The first five lines begin with “You,” with the final “yours” falling mid-line to signal the upcoming shift. Lines 6 through 12 use “Meanwhile,” emphasizing the multitude of concurrent events. The final five lines avoid anaphora altogether, signaling that the poem has reached its thematic resolution.

Pairs well with: The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, or The Outsiders.

3. “The Shark”

Why it’s a great pick: “The Shark” is an exciting poem with a Jaws-like plot great for attracting the attention of students who are intimidated by poetry. Oliver asks the reader to consider the essence of humanity. What is it that causes humans to hold themselves above all other animals? “Speech,” the poem answers. “The wilderness of our wit.”

Teaching points: A poem with a plot provides a unique opportunity to study line breaks. After you’ve read the poem as published, present it to students in paragraph form. Then, ask students to consider how line breaks alter the reading experience and create meaning within the poem.

Pairs well with: Moby-Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, Silent Spring, or The Odyssey

4. “Singapore”

Why it’s a great pick: In “Singapore,” Oliver turns her keen powers of observation indoors, focusing them on a working-class woman scrubbing an ashtray in a toilet stall. With the same reverence Oliver uses to describe her iconic grasshopper and wild geese, the speaker in this poem studies and respects the laborer as she works. For students, “Singapore” illustrates a poem’s ability to imbue even dark, dingy moments of the human experience with meaning.

Teaching points: Use this poem as an opportunity to study symbolism. The “bird” appears at least three times in this poem, taking on a different connotative resonance with each appearance. Ask students to consider how the meaning of the bird changes over the course of the poem, and how these shifts affect students’ understanding of the poem.

Pairs well with: The Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple, or Tess of the d’Urbervilles

5. “In Blackwater Woods”

Why it’s a great pick: “In Blackwater Woods” reveals poetry’s capacity to philosophize, making explicit truths that readers can use to navigate the difficult experiences of life:

“To live in this world / you must be able // to do three things:// To love what is mortal; / to hold it against your bones / knowing your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, // to let it go.”

Teaching points: Use this poem to distinguish between personification and anthropomorphism. Personification gives non-human entities the thoughts and feelings of a human. Anthropomorphism gives non-human entities the form of the physical human body.

For example, “the trees are turning their own bodies into pillars of light” and “the blue shoulders / of the ponds.” While the trees and pond aren’t fully characterized, the reader is nevertheless prepared for the fleetingness of nature to be linked with the fleetingness of human life by the poem’s end.

Pairs well with: The Stranger, Walden, or A Tale of Two Cities