Posts Tagged ‘Mary Oliver’

poetry books

Recently, Alyssa tweeted about having “a personal canon of poems” – a few lines or poems she depends upon to be “permanently in [her] head.” Of course, I immediately started thinking about my own essential poems – the ones that rise up to comfort me after a loss, or get me through a tough day.

I stumbled on most of them in college or thereabouts, studying them in classes or discovering them via friends. I’ve quoted some of them here during Poetry Fridays, but today I wanted to gather them up, like a bouquet of words, and share them all with you.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” I love Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words about “the dearest freshness deep down things.” In the face of deep and unrelenting darkness, the world is still heartbreakingly, powerfully lovely.

Since I came across it a few years ago, Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” has been saving my life, line by line. I read it aloud from the pulpit in church this summer, and it was as good as any biblical exhortation.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.”

And a few lines down: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” (This is hard but so necessary.)

I am a lifelong bookworm, and I love Wordsworth’s “The Tables Turned” because it pushes me to get out of my head and into the beautiful world around me. The last lines are my favorites: “Come forth and bring with you a heart / That watches and receives.”

Marie Howe’s poem “What the Living Do” stopped me in my tracks the first time I read it, on Sarah’s blog. I later read it aloud to a roomful of college freshmen one Sept. 11, as a way of paying tribute to those who died. The last lines still choke me up: “I am living. I remember you.”

I first encountered W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks” as the epigraph to Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. It speaks powerfully to the beauty and the difficulty of life, and the continued impetus to keep saying thank you.

Mark Strand’s poem “The Coming of Light,” discovered years ago in a rickety cabin at a camp tucked deep in the hills of northern New Mexico, always reminds me how magic lives in the everyday.

“My work is loving the world.” Mary Oliver’s “Messenger” reminds me of this again and again.

These poems have worked on me in different ways through the years. Sometimes they comfort me; sometimes they wake me up, through rhyme and rambling meter and startling images. But they all do what Seamus Heaney talks about in the last line of his wonderful poem “Postscript“: they “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

What poems have made it into your personal canon? I’d love to hear.


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sand glitter beach coronado

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

—Mary Oliver

Married to amazement, indeed. That’s what I want.

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Oct 2013 001

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

I have never met Mary Oliver, but I consider her one of my teachers.

A published poet since 1963, Oliver has written hundreds, probably thousands, of poems during her lifetime, producing more than 25 books of poetry and three books of nonfiction to date. She writes about early morning walks in the woods or along the shoreline; finding the footprints of animals in the forest or near a lake; the tension between the fleeting beauty of the natural world and its undertones of violence, death and decay. She harbors a deep love for the world we inhabit, and a deep sadness for the ways humans mar or destroy the quiet, lonely places where animals and plants live.

I doubt Oliver ever cared much for clothes and fashion, but if she did, she gave up that particular passion long ago. She has learned what is worth caring about, and what she can easily ignore:

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

This is what I need to learn, amid my distracted and often scattered life, amid my commute and my day job, amid the relentless pull of social media and relationships online and offline. I need to learn to pause, on my front porch or in the park or even on the subway platform, and pay attention to the
natural world, to the details that astonish.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine again today, sharing my thoughts on Oliver’s poetry. Please click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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April is National Poetry Month, and I love a good poem. So on Fridays this month, I’ll be bringing you a few of my favorites. (Here are some poetry posts from last April.)

tulips boston public garden


My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

—Mary Oliver


I also read more poetry than usual during Poetry Month. This year, that means dipping into Caroline Kennedy’s anthology She Walks in Beauty, eyeing David Whyte’s The House of Belonging, and revisiting favorites by Collins, Frost, Dickinson and others.

What poems do you love? Who are your favorite poets?

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Poem for winter

boston garden winter snow dusk lights

Walking Home from Oak-Head
by Mary Oliver

There is something
about the snow-laden sky
in winter
in the late afternoon

that brings to the heart elation
and the lovely meaninglessness
of time.
Whenever I get home — whenever —

somebody loves me there.
I stand in the same dark peace
as any pine tree,

or wander on slowly
like the still unhurried wind,
as for a gift,

for the snow to begin
which it does
at first casually,
then, irrepressibly.

Wherever else I live —
in music, in words,
in the fires of the heart,
I abide just as deeply

in this nameless, indivisible place,
this world,
which is falling apart now,
which is white and wild,

which is faithful beyond all our expressions of faith,
our deepest prayers.
Don’t worry, sooner or later I’ll be home.
Red-cheeked from the roused wind,

I’ll stand in the doorway
stamping my boots and slapping my hands,
my shoulders
covered with stars.

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books tree snowman christmas

(This really means “week before vacation and vacation” reading, and/or “The Final Book Roundup of 2012.”)

The Secret Keeper, Kate Morton
As a teenager in 1961, Laurel Nicolson sees her mother kill a man. She doesn’t know who he was or why he came to their house – and the family never speaks of it again. Forty years later, as her mother begins to slip away, Laurel and her brother begin a feverish search for answers. This was my first Morton novel and I loved it – so evocative of both modern-day England and London during the Blitz. The sibling dynamics are perfectly drawn, and there were a couple of brilliant, dramatic twists. Utterly absorbing. (I received a galley from the publisher, but was not compensated for this review.)

All Shall Be Well, Deborah Crombie
I tore through this second book featuring the Scotland Yard team of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. They investigate the death of Kincaid’s terminally ill neighbor Jasmine, from a lethal dose of morphine. She had considered (and mentioned) suicide, but the details add up to homicide instead. Better plotted, better written and more interesting than the first one, with more insights into Kincaid’s and Gemma’s lives. (I wonder – especially since the writer is a woman – why she calls him “Kincaid” and her “Gemma.” Perhaps it’s my feminist self being nitpicky?)

At Bertram’s Hotel, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple, staying at the posh, old-world titular London hotel, observes a number of strange events that add up to a murder case. As usual, she solves the crime with keen observation and unruffled calm. Dashing celebrities, foggy nights, fast cars and lots of secrets make this an entertaining mystery.

A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver
Oliver’s newest collection is full of lyrical observations, several elegies to a beloved dog, and the nature imagery for which she is known. I didn’t love it quite as much as Thirst, which blew me away, but it was still quite lovely.

The Game, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell travel to India, to search for an Irish spy who has disappeared – none other than the title character of Kipling’s Kim. They travel in the guise of gypsy musicians, stay at a maharaja’s palace, and encounter a dizzying array of characters, both friend and foe. This is a fabulous adventure story and a brilliant tribute to Holmes’ and Russell’s ability to think on their feet. One of my favorites in the series.

Locked Rooms, Laurie R. King
Fresh from their Indian adventure (above), Holmes and Russell land in San Francisco, so Russell can deal with matters relating to her family’s property there. But a series of disturbing dreams forces her to rethink her memories of childhood, and of the car wreck that killed her family. A dazzling portrait of San Francisco in the early 20th century, both before and after the 1906 earthquake. I loved the exploration of Russell’s character and her family history, and the Chinese bookseller, Mr. Long.

The Language of Bees, Laurie R. King
Arriving home at last, Holmes and Russell can’t rest for long: Holmes’ grown son Damian, whom he has met only once before, turns up on their doorstep asking for his father’s help. As they search for Damian’s missing wife and child, Russell doubts Damian’s innocence and worries over Holmes’ refusal to suspect his son. Not my favorite of the series – the plot involves a creepy cult, and the ending is literally “to be continued.” But I’ll still read The God of the Hive to find out what happens.

A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache returns to the village of Three Pines (introduced in Still Life) to solve another murder, this one of a self-styled, self-centered design guru whom no one liked. Many characters from Still Life reappeared, but for some reason this story fell rather flat for me. Perhaps it was too similar to the first, or I was simply irritated at several plot threads left dangling. I do like Gamache, though: he’s a thoughtful, wise character.

What did you read over your vacation, if you had one?

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As an English major, I’ve read (and written) lots of poetry. I have a few favorites, though – some lines that are close to my heart, and float into my head once in a while. April is National Poetry Month, so I thought I’d share them with you. In no particular order:

1. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver, from “The Summer Day”)

2. “She will look at me with her thin arms extended, / offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.” (Billy Collins, from “Tuesday, June 4, 1991.” I love pretty much everything Collins writes.)

3. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” (My friend Joy and I once climbed a hill in Salzburg, Austria, through a yellow-green spring wood, and recited this poem as we climbed. Yes, we were and are huge nerds. But now when I hear Frost’s lines, I remember our hike up the Kapuzinerberg.)

4. “In a house in Paris all covered in vines / lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. […] The smallest one was Madeline.” (No explanation needed – unless you’ve never heard of Madeline, whereupon I say, go find out about her right now!)

5. “All that is gold does not glitter, / Not all those who wander are lost…” (I love this poem from The Lord of the Rings…such deep truth here, and it fits into Tolkien’s magnificent mythology.)

6. “I am living. I remember you.” (the heartbreaking last lines from Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” – posted in its entirety on Sarah’s site)

7. “Hope is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – At all” (Oh, how I love Dickinson. This one is my favorite.)

8. “I dwell in Possibility, / A fairer house than Prose – ” (More Dickinson. Love it.)

9. “Ricky was ‘L’ but he’s home with the flu…” (From “Love” by Shel Silverstein – see this post about fourth grade poetry.)

10. “You don’t own it – English majors!” (From a poem about poetry, by my friend Grant, who took creative writing classes even though he wasn’t an English major.)

What are the lines that have stayed with you?

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