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Friday, April 24, 2020

Mary Oliver: my favorite poet

[NOTE: The following article originally appeared on Interlitq in my column Poets Who Make Us Better: Mary Oliver.]

When I began an arduous search of poetry journals, I read so many poems I didn’t connect with that I suspected I had been born in the wrong time with too many blessings to ever be a poet. So I did the only thing I knew to do: I stopped writing poems.

Then during a trip to New England I meandered into a quaint bookshop and saw the glossy green cover of White Pine, a poetry book by Mary Oliver. Confetti could have fallen! Or, more likely, rose petals, bird feathers, pine needles, and beach sand….

Her poems not only spoke to me as no one else’s had done, they called me to observe intently and search attentively for THE precise word. For instance, the opening poem “Work,” hung on these lines:

“All day I work
with the linen of words

and the pins of punctuation…”

We talk about words being “silken” – smooth, soft, sleek, and often shiny – the kind of things I had aimed for in writing poems, but no. In the very first poem of my very first introduction to Mary Oliver’s work, she tells us she’s looking for linen – a fabric that can be coarse or crumpled and in need of ironing. But, with strong fibers woven from the flax plant, linen is a natural material to work with in writing poems.

How unlike the synthetic poems I had been reading! How observant! And see  how precise the poem becomes in the line, “the pins of punctuation….” Isn’t that exactly what punctuation does?

What I’d often looked for, however, in the poetry I’d been reading were lines that carried insight to readers in a plum-delicious way. Consider, for example, Mary Oliver’s poem, “Yes! No!”

“How necessary it is to have opinions! I think the spotted trout
lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth. I
think serenity is not something you just find in the world,
like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.

The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like
small dark lanterns.

The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.

How important it is to walk along, not in haste, but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out….”

Did you notice the poet’s skill in enticing us with lush, unexpected descriptions before injecting flat statements into the poem?

For another example, look at “I Looked Up,” and see how a ‘thick bird” with “a ruffle of fire trailing over the shoulders” prefaces these flat but startling statements:

“What misery to be afraid of death.
What wretchedness, to believe only in what can be proven.”

The more I studied the poems in White Pine, the more the book hooked me until I wound up buying everything of Mary Oliver’s I could find. I also read and re-read A Poetry Handbook by this highly acclaimed poet, who had already won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Then I discovered Blue Pastures with its poetically written essays on poets, poetry, and Oliver’s own writing life.

The wisdom, beauty, insight, exactitude, and down-to-earth practicalities of those books invite me to read them again, making new discoveries with each reading. In Owls and Other Fantasies, for example, the “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard” has a beak that “could open a bottle” while the eyes with “their soft lids” –

go on reading something
just beyond your shoulder –
Blake, maybe,
or the Book of Revelation

One might say the same for the soft lids of Mary Oliver’s eyes as evidenced by “The Uses of Sorrow” in her book Thirst:

“Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.”

In both an experiment or a trial, evidence can confirm a claim or prove it, so it’s not surprising that one of Oliver’s books is called Evidence. The title poem includes a line that exhorts us (perhaps, like an Old Testament Prophet?) to “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

Published by Beacon Press, Evidence contains the persuasive poem, “I Want to Write Something So Simply,” which shows the poet’s consistent aim in her work.

“I want to write something
so simply
about love
or about pain
that even
as you are reading
you feel it….”


“…you will realize –
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your own heart
had been saying.”

That refreshing goal made her poetry exquisite yet accessible and unique and established Mary Oliver as a poet who makes us better as poets and people too.

Mary Harwell Sayler recently collected almost all of the prayers in the Bible from many English translations and paraphrased them into everyday English for the Book of Bible Prayers. She also released the prayer book in the King James Version only as the Book of KJV Prayers then collected poems from her previously published work into A Gathering of Poems.



  1. Thank you for sharing these delicious morsels of her poems. I know another poet whose also a huge fan of her work - Atholl Williams.

  2. Good to know, Sam! Thank you. I hadn't read his work but just searched out some of his powerful poems.