The poet Mary Oliver died yesterday at the age of eighty-three. As people share their gratitude for how she embraced the sacrament of existence, poetry is flooding the internet.
I got to know some of my friends from the inside out. Because of various circumstances, I learned about their interior lives—their emotions, their spiritual struggles and joys—before I knew their external details, such as where they worked or grew up.
Mary Oliver was an inside-out poet. She gave few interviews, but her poems generously offered her interior being to her readers in a way few do. I heard her read once, and she was delightfully human—both fallible, as she wondered out loud where she had put the next poem, and divine in her presence and her words.
She had the uncanny ability to marvel at nature and life in a way that revealed the beauty of it all but did not deny the harsh realities of the world. Her vision avoided getting tangled in how things should be and instead revealed the sacred nature of things as they are.
It’s hard to choose which of her poems to share, but here are a few that have meant a lot to me and so many others over the years.
May you rest in curiosity and continuing discovery, oh observer of and participant in the eternal. To whatever it is that happens after this life, you are surely now paying singular and exquisite attention.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
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 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.