Thank you, Mary Oliver (1935-2019), for your poetry that has accompanied me and countless others (and will continue to) throughout so much of life. I have read your words aloud at dinner tables and hospital beds, under my covers and on long meandering hikes, during moments of extreme joy and aching grief. Thank you for your imagination and your light and for reminding us to always pay attention during these wild and precious lives.
Readers, here are some of the Mary Oliver poems I’ve posted over the years, though I recommend you explore the vast collection of her incredible work. I’ll leave you this morning with one of the first poems of hers I ever loved and shared on this blog a decade ago.
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
Yes! No! The
swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants
only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier
is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppy
rocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better
than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.
I had the pleasure of seeing the incredible writer, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry (1934-) last night, speaking on everything from land use to the necessary distinction between optimism and hope. At the beginning of the evening, he read this manifesto of a poem, and the images have been rolling around in my mind ever since:
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
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.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.