Through reading Roger Housden’s extraordinary “Ten Poems…” anthologies (starting with Ten Poems to Change Your Life) I have become aware of the poems of Mary Oliver. (OK, I’m slow… Google shows over 52,000 hits for her name. At least I got there eventually.) My first impression was of an impatient Walt Whitman: a combination of transcendent vision with a fierce and uncompromising urgency. These are Emergency Broadcast System messages to one’s inner heart: save the only life you can: your own. Consider the opening of The Journey:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.

But the message is not always a call to action: here are the opening lines of her Mockingbirds:

This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing

better to do
than listen.
I mean this

As I read more of Mary Oliver, I have come to reallize that those first few poems that I encountered in no way define or constrain her. There are many sides to Oliver’s work: romantic, visionary, organic, mimetic, mythic; above all grounded in nature. And yet I find myself particularly drawn to these direct, imperative pieces: Journey, the shocking West Wind 2, the absolution of Wild Geese, or the exhortation of Have You Ever Tried To Enter The Long Black Branches?, with its blunt question:

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

Well? Are you?

5 Responses to “Poems: Mary Oliver”
  1. alecm says:

    >Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?


    I’m avoiding listening to everyone telling me what I shoudn’t do.

  2. Geoff Arnold says:

    That’s all right then……

  3. Terry Karney says:

    I (being the fan of haiku that I am, think mockingbirds would have been stronger for losing the last versicle.

    But I like it.


  4. Lori says:

    I have “are you breathing just a little…. on my desk at work to see everyday.

    Another favorite excerpt of a poem of hers is:

    “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 visted this world”

  5. Jennalee says:

    Um that was very interesting?

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