11 Best Mary Oliver Poems About Life, Death, and everything

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Mary Oliver was a celebrated American poet famous for her work inspired by the natural world. A lifelong lover of long walks in the wild, Oliver had a unique ability to explore the depths of human emotions through the lens of our natural surroundings. 

Her poems capture what it is to be human, from love, joy, and celebration, to sorrow, despair, and death. They inspire readers to wake up from the day-to-day humdrum, take a deep breath and cherish our precious moments on this earth more often. 

Mary Oliver received many accolades during her long and fruitful career, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the National Book Award for Poetry, and a Lannan Literary Award for lifetime achievement. The New Yorker even hailed her as “one of the most beloved poets of her generation.” 

Oliver sadly passed away in 2019, but her work remains at the forefront of the American poetry scene and will leave a lasting legacy in the literary world. 

If you’re new to Mary Oliver’s work, then you’ve come to the right place. Below are a collection of her best-loved poems, covering subjects like life, death, and everything in between. 

1. The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

2. Watering the Stones

Every summer I gather a few stones from

the beach and keep them in a glass bowl.

Now and again I cover them with water,

and they drink. There’s no question about

this; I put tinfoil over the bowl, tightly,

yet the water disappears. This doesn’t

mean we ever have a conversation, or that

they have the kind of feelings we do, yet

it might mean something. Whatever the

stones are, they don’t lie in the water

and do nothing.

Some of my friends refuse to believe it

happens, even though they’ve seen it. But

a few others—I’ve seen them walking down

the beach holding a few stones, and they

look at them rather more closely now.

Once in a while, I swear, I’ve even heard

one or two of them saying “Hello.”

Which, I think, does no harm to anyone or

anything, does it?

3. Song for Autumn

Don’t you imagine the leaves dream now

how comfortable it will be to touch

the earth instead of the

nothingness of the air and the endless

freshets of wind? And don’t you think

the trees, especially those with

mossy hollows, are beginning to look for

the birds that will come—six, a dozen—to sleep

inside their bodies? And don’t you hear

the goldenrod whispering goodbye,

the everlasting being crowned with the first

tuffets of snow? The pond

stiffens and the white field over which

the fox runs so quickly brings out

its long blue shadows. The wind wags

its many tails. And in the evening

the piled firewood shifts a little

longing to be on its way.

4. Wild Geese

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.

5. The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?

Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –

An armful of white blossoms,

A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned

into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,

Biting the air with its black beak?

Did you hear it, fluting and whistling

A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall

Knifing down the black ledges?

And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –

A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet

Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?

And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?

And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?

And have you changed your life?

6. August

Our neighbor, tall and blonde and vigorous, the mother

of many children, is sick. We did not know she was sick,

but she has come to the fence, walking like a woman

who is balancing a sword inside of her body, and besides

that her long hair is gone, it is short and, suddenly, gray.

I don’t recognize her. It even occurs to me that it might

be her mother. But it’s her own laughter-edged voice,

we have heard it for years over the hedges.

All summer the children, grown now and some of them

with children of their own, come to visit. They swim,

they go for long walks along the harbor, they make

dinners for twelve, for fifteen, for twenty. In the early

morning two daughters come to the garden and slowly

go through the precise and silent gestures of T’ai Chi.

They all smile. Their father smiles too, and builds

castles on the shore with the children, and drives back to

the city, and drives back to the country. A carpenter is

hired—a roof repaired, a porch rebuilt. Everything that

can be fixed.

June, July, August. Every day, we hear their laughter. I

think of the painting by van Gough, the man in the chair.

Everything wrong, and nowhere to go. His hands over

his eyes.

7. 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.

8. Dogfish

Some kind of relaxed and beautiful thing

kept flickering in with the tide

and looking around.

Black as a fisherman’s boot,

with a white belly.

If you asked for a picture I would have to draw a smile

under the perfectly round eyes and above the chin,

which was rough

as a thousand sharpened nails.

And you know

what a smile means,

don’t you?

I wanted

the past to go away, I wanted

to leave it, like another country; I wanted

my life to close, and open

like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song

  where it falls

down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery;

  I wanted

to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know,

whoever I was, I was

alive

for a little while.

It was evening, and no longer summer.

Three small fish, I don’t know what they were,

huddled in the highest ripples

as it came swimming in again, effortless, the whole body

one gesture, one black sleeve

that could fit easily around

the bodies of three small fish.

Also I wanted

to be able to love. And we all know

how that one goes,

don’t we?

Slowly

the dogfish tore open the soft basins of water.

You don’t want to hear the story

of my life, and anyway

I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen

to the enormous waterfalls of the sun.

And anyway it’s the same old story – – –

a few people just trying,

one way or another,

to survive.

Mostly, I want to be kind.

And nobody, of course, is kind,

or mean,

for a simple reason.

And nobody gets out of it, having to

swim through the fires to stay in

this world.

And look! look! look! I think those little fish

better wake up and dash themselves away

from the hopeless future that is

bulging toward them.

And probably,

if they don’t waste time

looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

9. Invitation

Oh do you have time

to linger

for just a little while

out of your busy

and very important day

for the goldfinches

that have gathered

in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,

to see who can sing

the highest note,

or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,

or the most tender?

Their strong, blunt beaks

drink the air

as they strive

melodiously

not for your sake

and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning

but for sheer delight and gratitude –

believe us, they say,

it is a serious thing

just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in the broken world.

I beg of you,

do not walk by

without pausing

to attend to this

rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.

It could mean everything.

It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:

You must change your life.

10. Starlings in Winter

Chunky and noisy,

but with stars in their black feathers,

they spring from the telephone wire

and instantly

they are acrobats

in the freezing wind.

And now, in the theater of air,

they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;

they float like one stippled star

that opens,

becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;

and you watch

and you try

but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it

with no articulated instruction, no pause,

only the silent confirmation

that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin

over and over again,

full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,

even in the leafless winter,

even in the ashy city.

I am thinking now

of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots

trying to leave the ground,

I feel my heart

pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.

I want to be light and frolicsome.

I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,

as though I had wings.

11. Don’t Hesitate

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,

don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty

of lives and whole towns destroyed or about

to be. We are not wise, and not very often

kind. And much can never be redeemed.

Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this

is its way of fighting back, that sometimes

something happens better than all the riches

or power in the world. It could be anything,

but very likely you notice it in the instant

when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the

case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid

of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Conclusion

Mary Oliver wrote countless works during her prolific career, and there are plenty more incredible poems to explore from this generation-defining writer. Have I missed any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments below.

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